Viktor Bout: the Lord of War at centre of Griner and Whelan prisoner swap

Merchant of Death, Lord of War, the Bill Gates of Arms Dealing: Viktor Bout’s nicknames speak for themselves.

The infamous Russian arms dealer has found himself back in the spotlight after it was reported that the US proposed to use him in a prisoner exchange for the WNBA star Brittney Griner and the former marine Paul Whelan, two high-profile Americans held by Russia.

Much of Bout’s early life, including his place and date of birth, is a mystery. According to his biographers, he was born in 1967 in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, the son of a bookkeeper and a car mechanic.

Trained as an interpreter at the Soviet Military Institute of Foreign Languages in Moscow, Bout spent some time with the Soviet army working as translator in Angola in the late 1980s, rising to the rank of lieutenant, according to his website.

He first came to prominence in the tumultuous early days after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. There, he enjoyed two big advantages that catapulted his career as an arms dealer: access to a large fleet of Soviet-era aircraft and a huge stockpile of surplus weaponry.

During his decades-long career, Bout is believed to have armed the Taliban and the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, the Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone, Charles Taylor’s regime in Liberia, Unita in Angola, various Congolese factions and Abu Sayyaf, a militant Islamic group in the Philippines.

In the process, Bout, who is rumoured to speak six languages, became known as one of the world’s most wanted men, with numerous international arrest warrants issued against him.

In 2002, the Los Angeles Times profiled Bout, quoting a former US government official who described him as the “Donald Trump or Bill Gates” of arms trafficking.

Viktor Bout held by Thai police after his arrest in 2010. Photograph: Apichart Weerawong/AP

His larger-than-life persona was further boosted by the release of the 2005 crime drama Lord of War, featuring the Hollywood star Nicolas Cage, which was believed to have been loosely based on Bout’s life.

Bout was finally arrested at a luxury hotel in Bangkok in 2008, in a spectacular US sting operation in which undercover Drug Enforcement Administration agents posed as rebels from the Colombian group Farc, catching him on camera trying to sell weapons for use against Americans.

Four years later, he was sentenced in a court in New York to 25 years in prison. When the prosecutor said he had agreed to sell weapons to kill Americans, Bout shouted: “It’s a lie! God knows this truth.”

His defence attorney, Albert Dayan, said US officials were targeting his client because they were embarrassed that Bout’s companies had helped deliver goods to American military contractors involved in the Iraq war. Others have also questioned the severity of his sentence.

The judge, Shira Scheindlin, who presided over his case, later said that Bout “got a hard deal”.

“If you asked me today: ‘Do you think 10 years would be a fair sentence?’ I would say yes,” Scheindlin said.

At the time, Russian officials, who unsuccessfully tried to prevent his extradition to the US, criticised the sentencing as “baseless and biased”, adding that Moscow would “take whatever action necessary to repatriate Viktor Bout back to his motherland by any means within international law”.

Bout’s relationship with Russia’s political elites, experts say, is as murky as his arms-dealing career.

“He seems to be well regarded and well respected in the military intelligence,” said Andrei Soldatov, a Russian investigative journalist and security services expert. But, Soldatov added, Bout’s exact ties with Russia’s security services remained a mystery.

Soldatov said it was highly likely that Bout had worked for the Russian intelligence service GRU during his time in Angola. “The very fact that he could be involved in the swap shows his value to the security services,” Soldatov said.

Bout has now spent 12 years behind US bars and is said to be serving his sentence alongside a number of prominent American neo-Nazis and white supremacist extremists, including Christopher Cantwell.

According to the Politico reporter Chris Miller, who has been exchanging letters with Cantwell, Bout recently stated that Ukraine should not exist as a country and kept a photo of Vladimir Putin in his prison cell.

In Moscow he was never forgotten. His case has become a cause célèbre in Russia, and senior officials have repeatedly pressed for his release. Last year, the Moscow’s civic chamber exhibited 24 of his prison-made artworks, including a number of self-portraits behind bars featuring his signature moustache.

Vladimir Zherebenkov, Whelan’s lawyer, said on Thursday that Russia had proposed in 2020 to exchange his client for Bout, an offer he said the US rejected.

If returned to Moscow, Bout is likely to receive a hero’s welcome, similar to that enjoyed by Anna Chapman, the Russian spy who was part of a prisoner exchange in 2010.

And while much of his life will remain shrouded in secrecy, his career as an arms dealer is perhaps best portrayed in the 2014 documentary film The Notorious Mr Bout. Using an impressive collection of home videos made by Bout during his work trips, the directors paint a picture of a shrewd operator who transported arms for years and was finally undone by a post-9/11 crackdown on arms trading.