The more he is explained, clarified, profiled, the more the reality vanishes.
The blizzard of commentary on Viktor Bout, the Russian arms trafficker dubbed the Merchant of Death who was released to Russia as part of a prisoner swap deal in return for U.S. basketball player Brittney Griner, only serves to obfuscate the reality of Bout, his crimes, and his trade.
Bout was 10 years into a 25-year sentence in a U.S. maximum-security prison. His conviction—on charges of terrorism—hinged on an alleged plot to supply weapons for Colombian guerrillas to shoot down American aircraft. Like his career, it is the very stuff of headlines.
Wherever his consignments went—Afghanistan, East Africa, Somalia, South America—they brought death. He is the Stones’ ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ made flesh, a fitting supervillain for a new Cold War. There he is in the accompanying photos, all Supermax orange and Hannibal Lecter shackles, accessorised with a cold stare and Kevlar vest. He could have stepped straight from his portrayal by Nicholas Cage in Lord of War, a Hollywood movie that the media are now routinely name-checking.
Such is geopolitical commentary in a post-Marvel Comic Universe world.
The problem is that this portrayal does us all—not least the victims of the illicit weapons trafficking trade worldwide—a terrible, even a fatal, disservice.
I have some knowledge of Bout. I was one of the small army of monitors, sleuths, and aviation geeks who tracked him and the tidal wave of Russian arms consignments that spread across the world with ex-Soviet military aircrews in the years following the USSR’s collapse. These adventures became Outlaws Inc., the definitive book on the tidal wave of stockpiled Kalashnikovs that Bout rode through wars Somalia and Afghanistan, massacres in the Congo and Liberia, wealth and fame. I was part of the team that made 2014’s BBC-commissioned, Sundance Festival prize-winning documentary on Bout’s own rise and fall, The Notorious Mr Bout.
And if we learned anything tracking Bout and his fellow traffickers—and what we learned was first-hand, not gleaned from the intelligence community’s notorious Chinese whispers, in which a suspicion is leaked to the press, reported, then that report turned into an intelligence dossier of ‘evidence’ —it is that these crude lines of caricature do not illuminate the complex truth of the trade in illicit weapons. They obscure it.
At a time when the transfer of weapons and materiel demands our focus—it is the critical factor that will decide the fate of fault-line conflicts from Ukraine to Afghanistan—it is dismaying to see much of the media peddle the same old supervillain narrative that took hold through books like Stephen Braun and Doug Farrah’s Merchant of Death prior to Bout’s NYC trial in 2012. The bad guys are boogiemen. Like old Western antagonists in their black Stetsons, they are easy to see.
But in real life the major villains are not easy to see.
As one Belgian arms monitor shrugged to me the day Bout was convicted in a Manhattan courtroom, “The people driving the illicit arms trade are the same ones driving the licit trade. And they are people whose names you won’t see in the news.”
We knew while making The Notorious Mr Bout that it had to be many things—a collage of unfiltered source material; a work of record that let the evidence speak for itself. But we also knew it was a counter-narrative to the simplistic tendency of pundits and policymakers to see the world split into heroes-and-villains, replete with condemnation for the real arms dealers who shift weapons to conflict zones and repressive regimes across the world in volumes that defy belief, let alone catalogue.
The uncomfortable truth is that those dealers are not glorified man-with-a-pickup sole traders like Bout. They are larger players with names like the Russia, China, Serbia, France, Italy, Israel… and the U.S.
One central issue for anyone looking to limit or track the trade in arms is that weapons themselves—hard, tangible objects—seem to enter a flickering quantum status in transit. A shipment of ground-to-air missiles change completely depending on where they are; who’s ordered them and for whom; who’s been involved in their financing, manufacture, fitting, transport and logistics at every stage; and what context they are ultimately destined to be used. Unlike, say, cocaine—which will almost always be illegal anywhere—illicit arms transfers may well enjoy perfectly legal status for every part of their journey, only becoming illegal in retrospect, when it turns out that the end-user certificate declaring they were for peacekeeping purposes in one country was only to disguise the fact that they were to be shipped immediately onwards, to a rogue state over the border, in exchange for a bribe. It is impossible to say that no legitimate transport or logistics company has ever done the same.
Everything quickly decays into shades of grey. Western governments are not averse to channelling arms under the radar, when we feel it’s right to do so. From the Afghan Mujahedin to today’s Ukrainian forces, we use subcontractors in the cargo trade. Indeed, one of the reasons I flew to Afghanistan with one of Viktor Bout’s planes in 2003 was that his—and shady Russian air cargo companies like them—was one of the few outfits who’d agree to fly aid in, despite Taliban rocket fire, poor runways, and inadequate insurance. Indeed, the United Nations itself has over the years leaned into these private carriers for logistics around peacekeeping and emergency aid. Cutting our own standing fleets of planes and crews and outsourcing looks a lot like great value when it’s first announced on the balance sheet. In a business of shades, Bout was as grey as they come.
Yet at every step in making The Notorious Mr Bout, Tony Gerber, Maxim Pozdorovkin and I felt pressure to adhere to the Merchant of Death narrative. We were pressed—even by those underwriting the project—to paint in bolder strokes, more opposing colours. To find easy answers. Viktor Bout comic-book supervillain, the Lord of War. Or Viktor Bout, an innocent patsy, set up in some hypocritical conspiracy by dastardly Western powers. Either, we realised, would have done very nicely.
But here’s the thing. The truth about the illicit arms trade is not just discomfiting. It is huge it is vague, and it is mundane. It is hidden in plain sight.
The biggest shipments are not carried by hellraising bush pilots flying Soviet-era winged jalopies like Bout’s, any more than they are smuggled inside cakes. They are shipped in bulk, through container ports and paperwork, via networks of shell companies and subcontractors. The parties are respectable and dull. The paperwork is often maddeningly circular. It is not a black market at all. It is, in a phrase used by trafficking monitors, the gray market. Foggy and hard to make out. Cloaked in contractual small print, logistics, and broken hyperlinks.
Yet if we want to stem its waves of death and chaos, instability and state failure, it demands our attention.
The truth is not just valuable, it is also ultimately more rewarding to engage with. When we premiered our film at Sundance, the producer of Lord of War came up to us afterwards and said, “I owe Viktor Bout an apology.” An apology might be stretching it. Yet even the federal Judge who sentenced Bout to 25 years came out after her retirement to state she thought the sentence too harsh.
The fact is that Viktor Bout was a businessman. He was not a good businessman—he fancied himself too much the wheeler-dealer, and his posing as a big-shot was what enabled the sting operation that captured him. Often, he was not a good man either. He fell in love with the rewards of his trade, made selfish decisions, and flooded places with easy access to light weapons when they should have had none. His cargo—and remember, they were just his cargo, not his products—certainly killed a great many people. He liked to think of himself as a taxi driver. Do they ask what’s in the suitcase of every passenger? He kept bad company, played fast-and-loose with other people’s lives,not least those of his often ignorant, poorly paid and unrested aircrews forced to fly ex-Soviet planes that were unsafe and crashed often. And like most of us, he managed to close his mind off to the consequences of the business he pursued.
What he was not was an ideologically motivated terrorist, though you would never guess it from reading the press coverage, or listening to the DEA or prosecutors. The supervillain myth spawns Hollywood action movies. It captures the imagination of audiences looking for a quick hit of justice, vengeance, and easy answers. The folk devil of our collective nightmares was so critical to our picture of the world that we were unwilling to let him go. The Merchant of Death caricature supplants the need for real engagement with the real evils of the trade in illicit weapons.
The true story of Viktor Bout is infinitely more compelling than the myth. But for the major arms manufacturing nations of the world that myth remains a wonderful red herring. The trade in illicit arms has never been about individuals, however attractive that idea might be.
This matters. These are dark times. While sanctions and embargoes bite, Russia is shopping illicitly again. Iranian drones, purchased by Moscow and shipped illicitly through Turkey, terrorise and kill civilians in Ukraine. In China, ex-Royal Air Force pilots on private contracts teach its military how to fight the Western aircraft they once piloted. The dark flow of money and commodities is battering democracies.
My new book We Are All Targets is soon to published in the U.S. It traces the crowdsourcing of war; and the deadly online nexus of business, intelligence services, organised crime, militaries, and governments. These are today’s villains. Marvel superheroes, if they existed, would be looking for receipts, not punching cackling baddies.
It’s always tempting to opt into the fantasy and react accordingly. But more than ever, times like this reward integrity and rigour. They demand that we resist quick and easy answers to complex questions. The lack of engagement with the reality of the arms-smuggling trade for which Bout has become a larger-than-life shorthand should concern us all.