Viktor Bout, the almost mythical global arms tsar, was convicted November 2, 2011 in a federal court in Manhattan of conspiracy to kill US citizens and officials, intent to deliver anti-aircraft missiles, and providing aid to a terrorist organization. Although his arrest and conviction were rare moments of triumph in the battle against the illicit arms trade, a closer look at Bout’s history and the circumstances of the trial sheds light on a disturbing truth. National governments often protect corrupt and dangerous arms dealers as long as they need them and lock them up when they are no longer useful.
For anyone familiar with the global arms industry, this realization will not come as a surprise. Discerning the legality and morality of international arms deals has long been a contentious task. In reality, the boundary between the legal arms market and its illegitimate counterpart is vague. With corruption in the arms trade accounting for roughly 40 percent of corruption in all global transactions[i], one would be hard-pressed to find an arms transaction that did not involve a degree of illegality. More often than not, this illegality stems from the use of middlemen, agents, or dealers like Mr. Bout. These weapons brokers provide “transport and logistical services” for their clients and are paid to ensure that responsibility for death and destruction cannot be traced to the original supplier. In other instances, “embargo busters” like Mr. Bout are able to operate around UN arms prohibitions and sell their own supply of arms in conflict zones around the world. Before examining why governments, the United Nations, large corporations and myriad covert operators consider illicit arms dealers a “necessary evil,” a closer look at Mr. Bout himself is warranted.
Viktor Bout, often dubbed the “Merchant of Death,” has been flooding the world’s conflict zones with weapons since the early 1990s. Born in Dushanbe, the capital city of Tajikistan, Mr. Bout graduated from the Military Institute of Foreign Languages and was stationed in Africa working for the Soviet army in the 1980s. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Bout and his partner Andrew Smulian jumped at the opportunity to arm African warlords. Mr. Bout bought up massive stockpiles of weapons left behind in former Soviet states, and moved his “air transport company” to the United Arab Emirates, where he enjoyed the country’s laissez-faire trade policies. From this base of operations, Bout facilitated huge arms shipments into various civil wars in Africa and elsewhere.
Bout’s clients included the Liberian dictator Charles Taylor, both the Northern Alliance and the Taliban in Afghanistan, a number of protagonists in the Balkans, the Angolan government and its mortal enemy, the UNITA rebel movement, and all sides in the complex conflict that continues to rage in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Mr. Bout embraced the credo, “sell to those who can pay.”[ii] As it turns out, the United States was interested in his services as well. Following the invasion of Iraq in 2003, treacherous landing conditions in Baghdad necessitated the US and its contractors to hire Mr. Bout’s air cargo supplier, Irbis Air. In just two years Irbis Air made hundreds of runs to Baghdad and other Iraqi airports, carrying everything from soldiers to munitions. During that two-year period, Mr. Bout earned $60 million in addition to the free fuel that the US military gave to cargo operators. Bout was hired even though he was supposedly wanted by the F.B.I and C.I.A. and was the subject of an Interpol arrest warrant. Furthermore, Mr. Bout and his airlines were going to be placed on both an American Treasury Asset Freeze list and the Foreign Assets Control list, which would have outlawed his hiring. The US military’s Central Command, however, requested an enforcement delay, allowing Mr. Bout to deliver the final shipments of arms and ammunition.
One year later, the US government decided that Mr. Bout was more trouble than he was worth. In late 2004 the US DEA planned a lengthy sting operation to bring Bout to justice. Wary of Bout’s political clout and connections with other governments, the two plotleaders gave themselves only a five percent chance of success. Yet Mr. Bout was arrested in Thailand in 2008 for trying to sell weapons to the DEA operatives posing as members of the Colombian rebel group FARC. The arrest sparked an international controversy between Washington and Moscow, causing many to wonder what secrets Mr. Bout may know about the shadowy global arms industry.
Because the global arms industry is estimated to be worth 1.6 trillion dollars, with the five UN Security Council permanent members plus Germany accounting for over 80 percent of total supply, it is difficult to ignore the relationship that arms dealers, such as Bout, have with state governments.
Developed countries rarely sell arms to one another. The largest profits in the arms industry stem from developed countries selling to developing countries, such as Saudi Arabia, India, the UAE, Egypt and Pakistan. However, this trade often leads to an ideological contradiction. As US President Jimmy Carter famously declared in 1976, “(The US) can’t have it both ways. We can’t be both the world’s leading champion of peace and the world’s leading supplier of arms.” The illicit arms dealer became a solution to this problem. Arms sales used to be done primarily between state governments, but the clandestine operations of the Cold War necessitated the use of private intermediaries. These new arms brokers, in time, became very useful for a number of reasons. Major powers that wished to supply one side of a conflict, even in the presence of a UN arms embargo, now had an outlet. For the illicit arms dealer, a UN arms embargo presented a business opportunity. With nowhere else to go, warring factions often paid a premium for smuggled arms.
Today’s global arms industry is largely deregulated. The penalties for illegal arms deals or embargo busting are not stringent enough to dissuade state governments and illicit arms dealers from maintaining the status quo. Currently, all that is needed for a legal arms sale is a credible end-use certificate, which tells the seller what the buyer has planned to do with the weapons. Unfortunately, the system is easy to cheat. The certificate licensing body has no verification mechanism, certificates are easily obtainable through corrupt channels, and they are often forged or list a destination that is merely a transit stop. Illicit arms dealers, moreover, easily exploit loopholes in international law, evade customs and airport controls, and falsify documents. The current industry seems to be set up so that men like Mr. Bout can exist.
Therefore, one must temper any celebration of Viktor Bout’s conviction with a wake-up call. There are many other people like Viktor Bout, some of whom are protected by their own governments or foreign governments — or intelligence agencies — that find them useful. As such, if we hope the legacy of Mr. Bout’s capture and conviction to be a positive turn in the battle against the illicit arms trade, new reforms must be initiated. Governments must show greater transparency in their use of brokers, outlining what they were paid and what services they rendered. Similarly, we must ban economic offsets in procurement decisions and political contributions from any parties participating in arms deals. Until these changes come to fruition, however, I fear that the arms trade will remain shrouded in mystery, violence, and illegality.
Written by: Charlie Olson
[i] Transparency International Study