Finally: an interview !

In 2003 Peter Landesman published a very informative article in the Suddeutsche Zeiting; a large part was dedicated to an interview with the illustrious and elusive Victor Bout.
The article was also published online 17Aug2003 at: Arms and the Man
It may require registering with and will require a fee to be paid to read the article in full.
It was still online in Sep.2004 at Peacelink - telematica per la pace

Peter Landesman met Victor Bout in a rather obscure hotel in Moscow. Also present were Victor's older brother Sergei as well as Richard Chichakli, a Syrian-born naturalized American citizen who lives in Dallas. Sergei seems to be in charge of Victor's many air-cargo companies. Chichakli, an accountant, calls himself a former business associate of Bout and his friend.
The setting of the first meeting could have of a Humphrey Bogart movie: spies, prostitutes, things hinted but left unsaid....

Some 8 months passed from Landesman' first request to the first actual meeting.
At the time of writing (2003), Victor Bout is still a fugitive from international justice, but he lives in in Moscow and does not hide. He is not under investigation in Russia (indeed, his country may well have profited from his activities).

Victor Bout has been labelled the world's largest arms trafficker.
VB has evaded U.N. investigators and watchdog organizations (e.g. Human Rights Watch). He also avoided the media. Until this interview, the only publicly available photo of him was secretly taken by a Belgian journalist, in March 2001, on an airstrip in Congo.
His appearances have been limited to brief denials of his role in arms trafficking. He walked out of a CNN interview in March 2002.
Thus the interview with Peter Landesman was quite a revelation.
VB seemed at ease during this meeting, but clearly indicated he could not "reveal all" as he had no doubt he would be terminated if he did. The political and financial stakes are high in the business he is in. ''My clients, the governments....I keep my mouth shut.''
But for him too, the scene after 9/11 had changed rapidly, finding himself on the "most wanted list" second only to Osama Bin Laden.

Bout, aged 36 at the time of the interview, is 6 feet tall and somewhat portly built.

Victor's business started straightforward enough, transporting gladiolas and frozen chickens in Africa; but gradually the cargo changed to mining equipment, diamonds, Kalashnikov assault rifles, bullets, helicopter gunships and flown into countries which were under a UN embargo...

The CIA produced covert photographs, shot between 1996 and 1999, at various African jungle airstrips. The photos showed different Russian cargo planes, all capable to operate from primitive airstrips. These planes were traced to VB.
In 1999 the US National Security Council initiated electronic surveillance of government and officials in war zones like northeast Congo, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Telephone conversations were tapped, American satellite imagery studied and fieldreports were analysed. Common denominator ? Victor Bout !

Meanwhile, Victor Bout - the legend, is growing. In spite of his denial he is clearly linked to weapons shipments, the trail is only too clear and is well-publicised. But he managed to remain out of reach of international law and most of all: managed to keep himself in business !

The interview (product of several meetings) produced small but interestings facts, which paint a better picture of VB; his choice of food and drinks indicated he is a vegetarian. His companions described him as concerned with the environment and fascinated by African folklore and wildlife. But this may well have been a "PR attempt".

His favourite authors, he told Peter Landesman, were the New Age novelists Paulo Coelho and Carlos Castaneda. He would like to go to the Russian Arctic north, make wildlife films for National Geographic and the Discovery channel...
Such an intellectual character and such a far cry from an arms trafficker !

VB's resume: his first business deal was made in 1992, aged 25. He bought 3 Antonov cargo planes for $120,000 and leased their services for long-haul flights from Moscow. His maiden voyage was to Denmark.
''I never had investors,'' Bout said. But how could a 25-year-old Russian get that kind of start-up money? VB kept silent.
In 1993, he moved his operations to Sharjah (United Arab Emirates, U.A.E.), crossroads of trade and transportation between Asia, Africa and Europe.
Sharjah is an ''airport of convenience'' for planes registered in countries like the Central African Republic and Liberia. It was here that he met Chichakli, who was the founding director of Sharjah's free-trade zone. (Chichakli claims he is a nephew of the former president of Syria and the son of a former Syrian under secretary of defense.)
Starting in 1995, Bout expanded his air-freight operations to Ostend, Belgium, and later to Odessa, Ukraine. Ostend had been a transit point for weapons in the Iran-contra operation 11 years earlier.
Belgium issued its own warrant for Bout's arrest -- not for arms trafficking but for crimes related to money laundering and diamond smuggling.
By 1996, Bout was running the biggest of the Emirate's 160 air-cargo companies, employing 1,000 air and land crew members. ''The idea was to create a network of companies in Central Africa, Southern Africa and the Emirates. I wanted to make a cargo and passenger airline like Virgin Atlantic.'' Again an attempt to paint an above-board image.
By 1997, Bout's operations had expanded to Pietersburg in South Africa. He had a refrigeration facility built in South Africa to freeze and store chickens, which cost a little over $1 a kilo in South Africa and sold for $10 in Nigeria. His early commercial exploits are an open book, but he withdraws when his personal life becomes the subject.
(Relatives of his nanny contacted me, worried about the fate of VB's children, but I learned little about VB's life in S.Africa.)

Landesman retraced VB's origin to the date he was born (as the record shows) to Russian parents in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, on Jan. 13, 1967. He attended the Soviet Military Institute for Foreign Languages in Moscow and went to a Russian military college, earning a degree in economics. He is fluent in 6 languages. (He picked most up "traveling''). He served in a military aviation regiment until 1991. Two of those years he spent in Mozambique, at the end of that country's civil war.
Bout insisted in the interview that he never had any connection with the K.G.B. and he showed Peter Landesman a statement, dated October 2002, with what he claimed was the letterhead of the Federal Security Services -- formerly the K.G.B. --. It expressed the agency ''has no information (!) regarding Mr. Bout's connections with the K.G.B." But that document could have been forged or bought and it isn't a straightforward denial of employment either.

VB's personal friends (read: customers) included Massoud, Mobutu, Savimbi, Taylor, Bemba.
He was very well connected....
He spoke glowingly of Congo's late president, Mobutu Sese Seko, and of Ahmed Shah Massoud, the Afghan Northern Alliance commander, both of whom he said he knew intimately.

Arms traffickers used to be subcontractors of the superpowers, feeding the conflicts Washington and Moscow wanted fought. After the fall of the Berlin Wall the working climate changed. But most brokers are now freelancers, who sell weapons without regard for ideology, allegiance or consequence. They have only one goal in mind: to make a lot of money !

In the context of the interview, Peter Landesman tried to analyze some of the hot spots of the arms trade. I only reproduce a small part of this and refer to the interview for the full details.

The Soviet Army's massive arsenal ended up in the hands of former Soviet republics. Desperate for hard currency, they sold off weapons the same way they sold off other resources and products they inherited from the defunct Soviet empire.
Of all the republics outside of Russia, Ukraine got the most -- and most lethal -- weapons, enough conventional firepower, by many accounts, to sustain a million troops. The Ukrainian government made a public show of transferring its vast nuclear arsenal back to Russia. But between 1992 and 1998, some $32 billion of large- and small scale Ukrainian weaponry and ammunition -allegedly- simply disappeared, as well as some other military property.

Representatives from Iraq, Iran, Somalia, Yemen, the Taliban and Pakistan came calling. So, perhaps, did North Korea, by way of Pakistan, and Al Qaeda, through the Taliban. Ukraine is the epicenter for global badness. It's worse than Pakistan. It's a one-stop-shopping infrastructure for anyone who wants to buy anything.
Ukraine was the place to shop for the underworld. But who was to sell the stuff and facilitate the logistics ? That's where Victor Bout and others came in.

Arms traffickers inherited not only the Soviet Union's cold-war weapons supply but also its fully operational systems of clandestine transport, money channels, people who understood how to use them and established shipping pipelines. Victor Bout was a master in all this. Peter Landesman corresponded with a Kenyan diamond trader and mine operator named Sanjivan Ruprah. The latter described how Bout offered to quickly fill Liberian's President Charles Taylor's shopping list in exchange for a promise of future business in Liberia. Bout told Ruprah he had a way around the U.N. embargo: he had end-user certificates, required for any legal sale of weapons to a legitimate government. False certificates, which is what Bout had, can be bought from corrupt governments for as little as $50,000. Djibouti is a popular false destination; so is Peru, according to one well-known arms trafficker.
Bout denied this to Peter landesman, said it couldn't be done.

Arms traffickers use seemingly legitimate businesses to disguise smuggling activities. Requests for weapons are quietly passed through webs of people, often for cash on delivery. The military are often the first link; bribes are paid to officials and officers to look the other way. Sometimes crates of weapons are labelled perishable fruit ! Or waiting air crews switch cargo at ''refueling'' stops. A pilot might fly into an airport under one tailnumber and fly out under a different one or his route may include an 'unscheduled' stop somewhere. Payments are wired through money-laundering havens like the Isle of Man or the Caymans or Dubai, or money is wired to quasi-legit cargo companies.
Sometimes weapons are payed "c.o.d", by a small bag of diamonds changing hands on the spot.

Customs often don't bother to compare actual contents of cargo with the documents. In late September 2001, two weeks after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, a Hungarian trading company in Budapest filed a request to ship Ukrainian cargo to an American firm based in Macon, GA. The name of the Ukrainian company -- ERI Trading and Investment Company - was unknown. A random inspection of the cargo determined that the shipment included 300 Ukrainian surface-to-air (SAM) missiles and 100 launchers. SAM's are light, mobile and easily hidden.... American agents later feared that they were going to be distributed to terrorists near America's major airports.
The cargo was stopped there and then and the American buyer was arrested in June.

Later Landesman showed Bout and his brother a copy of an invoice for another weapons deal, obtained from European intelligence sources. The invoice had the letterhead of San Air General Trading and is one of Bout's Sharjah-based companies. The invoice was for 2 Russian MI-8T ''helicopter gunships,'' 4 missile launchers and 3 bomb launchers; the bill was for $1,900,000, plus spare parts for an additional $90,000. The weapons were ostensibly for delivery to Ivory Coast, but would be delivered to Liberia, according to the intel sources.
Bout had a look at it and nonchalantly declared it a forgery.

U.S. officials have connected Bout to both Alexander Islamov, a notorious Russian arms dealer, and Leonid Minin, a Ukrainian version of the same. I asked him if he had flown cargo for them. ''These are my clients,'' he said. ''But who cares? It's not my business to know what's on board. It's not the captain's job to open the crates and know what's inside.''
''Illegal weapons?'' VB continued. ''What does that mean? If rebels control an airport and they give you clearance to land, what's illegal about that?'' Bout argued: ''killing isn't about weapons, it's about the people who use them.''
Now he was just a businessman, selling his goods...

Since the mid-1990's, not one U.N. arms embargo has resulted in the conviction of an arms trafficker. The U.N. has no power to arrest. Interpol depends on the cooperation of local authorities. Astonishingly, despite having the toughest arms-trafficking laws in the world, the U.S. has not prosecuted a single case of arms trafficking.

In Africa, by all accounts, Bout sold and delivered to anyone who could pay. But Afghanistan was different. He said that he helped arm only the Rabbani government, which was then clinging to power. ''I took sides because I knew what the Taliban was,'' Bout told me.
Here we have the idealist talking again.
''I had a major pact with the Rabbani government. My aircraft was the last one out of Bagram air base before the Taliban came.'' In the mid-1990s, he flew 4 shipments a day into government-controlled Jalalabad: weapons, TV's and radios.
In August 1995, 13 months before the Taliban took Kabul, one of VB's planes was intercepted by a Taliban aircraft; its load contained ammunition for the government and it was diverted to Kandahar, a Tailban stronghold of Kandahar. The plane and its cargo was seized, and the crew of 7 became imprisoned for over a year. And thenů the crew members managed to escape with their plane, departing under heavy fire, returning to Sharjah.
But Bout tells a different story about the escape. He negotiated with the Taliban during 1996 and flew flew to Kandahar a few. He was accompanied by officials from the Russian government. But the negotiations failed.
''Do you really think you can jump in a plane that's been sitting unmaintained on the tarmac for over a year, start up the engines and just take off?'' He seems to have a point there. ''They didn't escape, they were extracted.''
By a Western government, Landesman asked? VB denied this, but claimed he feared recriminations if he would reveal more. Not just for himself, but also for Peter Landesman...

Contacts with Western governments, wouldn't that be unlikely ? Not so.
Before September 2001, Russia was arming Massoud and the Northern Alliance with tons of weaponry. Many of the deliveries were made by Bout, but he flatly refused to discuss any such relationship during the interview.
Bout flew U.N. peacekeepers to East Timor and Somalia, and possibly to Sierra Leone. In 1994, during the Rwandan genocide, Bout said, the French government asked him to help implement Operation Turquoise to halt the fighting and facilitate aid shipments to refugees. Bout stated that he flew in 2,500 elite French troops. And he said he extracted Mobutu from Congo.

Odessa seems like a nice setting for a James Bond movie.... A U.S. government adviser in Kiev told Peter Landesman: ''Odessa's an open sewer and criminal outlet.'' Eight hundred shipping containers are off-loaded at that port every day !
Contraband like cigarettes, bootleg pharmaceuticals, CD's and weapons are smuggled in and then transferred from ship to ship or ship to plane. Even radioactive materials are involved...
Odessa is one place but 50 miles up the Dniester River from Odessa, in neighboring Moldova, the breakaway province of Trans-Dniester falls under the overlapping control of Ukrainian and Russian organized crime syndicates, the Russian Army and a private corporation named Sheriff. The Russian-speaking Trans-Dniestrians fought Romanian-speaking Moldova to a stalemate in a vicious war for independence in 1992, carving out a 250-mile-long wedge of land along Moldova's border with Ukraine. Its 600,000 people are destitute and isolated.
The enclave is so lawless that the United States Embassy in Chisinau, Moldova's capital, discourages its personnel from going there, and staying there overnight requires the ambassador's permission.
Before the Soviet Union's collapse, Tiraspol was home to the Soviet 14th Army, which left behind 40,000 tons of weaponry, the largest arsenal in Europe. At last count, stored in a complex of bunkers are enough explosives to make two and a half Hiroshima bombs, tens of thousands of Kalashnikov assault rifles, millions of rounds of ammunition and huge numbers of antitank missiles, grenades and Scudlike rockets. Trans-Dniestrian factories may still produce weapons.

VB denied ever having been to Trans-Dniester. But British agents, who have tracked weapons from Trans-Dniester to the Balkans and beyond, have documented Bout's involvement there for years. Sophisticated surface-to-air missile systems to the Middle East. Vehicle-mounted artillery systems. Bout's fingerprints are all over them.

Peter Landesman spoke to many officials or former officials; he also talked to persons who insisted to remain anonymous, interviewed them under a cloud of secrecy. He learned that Bout could be merely the public face of something much larger and that he was just getting a glimpse on the surface, further digging could prove very dangerous.
Two assassinations that had taken place days before his interviews, both victims were executives of a huge air-defense contractor involved in export of anti-aircraft weapons and other systems.

The interview makes it clear why Bout was both eager to talk and reluctant at the same time. Cornered by multiple governments, selling off his assets and hounded by the press, VB wanted to complain that he had merely become the fall guy for a criminalized -- and quasi-legal -- political structure much larger and more significant than the person Victor Bout.
Revealing too much and he could prove to be expendable.

Between the summers of 2000 and 2001, Western intelligence agencies targeted Bout with listening devices. Agents eavesdropped on his phone conversations. It looked like Bout had sold or leased planes to Ariana Afghan Airlines (the national carrier that had been taken over by the Taliban). Ariana operated flights from the Emirates to the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar and they could have carried weapons, gold and jihadis. Though there was no evidence connecting Bout to actual weapons sales to the Taliban or Al Qaeda, the U.S. government became convinced that Bout was at least servicing the planes -- enough to make him an Al Qaeda accomplice.
The U.S. government had no legal architecture to fight an arms network that operated across international borders in the political twilight.
The N.S.C. consulted with officials in the British, South African and Belgian governments to find means to shut Bout down, lock him up. Bout's planes from Sharjah were tracked. Arms shipments were interdicted at airfields in Moldova, Slovakia and Uganda. Apparently officials from the United Arab Emirates offered to capture Bout in Sharjah and hand him over to U.S. officials. At one point, an elite detachment was in place to make the arrest.
With Bout now under close surveillance, however, the White House made the last-minute call to pursue a classic narc strategy instead. It wanted to wait to see if Bout could take them higher up, to even bigger fish...

According to Clinton administration N.S.C. officials, from its first days the Bush administration didn't see trans-national crime as a national-security issue, and it didn't share their fixation on Victor Bout. Condoleezza Rice instructed the N.S.C. to work the Bout problem diplomatically. ''Look but don't touch'' is how one former White House official put it to Peter Landesman.
After Sept. 11, Rice called off the Bout operation altogether. Moscow was not to be pressured on arms trafficking in general and Victor Bout in particular. The reasoning, according to a source who talked to Rice, was that they had ''bigger fish to fry.'' (Rice refused to comment for this article.)

The interview, in my view, paints a good picture of the businessman Victor Bout, but that is not all. The article describes the shadowy underworld of illegal trade, with political powers joining criminal interests..... powers extending beyond comprehension for most of us who earn a paycheck with 9-to-5 jobs.
But there is also the double morality of Western powers, allegedly trying to bring VB to 'justice' but (as illustrated in another webpage dealing with VB on my website) are very forgiving if a person such as Victor Bout fits the bill for their own murky moves...

This was emailed to me in Oct.2004:
I have even more interesting news on Viktor. Seems there is not one, but two Hollywood movie projects in process that will feature Viktor (either in true name or by pseudo)!!

Peter Landesman, who wrote the NYT piece on his interview with Viktor, has produced a screenplay also titled "Arms and the Man." This work has been picked up by Universal and will be directed by Michael Mann who has done such films as "Last of the Mohicans" and "Collateral." Seems Landesman will have Viktor involved in a plot to steal plutonium from the Ukraine but later will turn into a good guy after his brother, Sergei, is killed. Production is slated for 2005.

The second project is an outgrowth of Douglas Farah's work "Blood from Stones." Farah has received two offers to option the movie rights to his work. One from a youngish director (I didn't get the name) who wants to do a feature film a la "Traffick" that will have a fictitious plotline overlain with actual facts. In this version, Bout will play only a secondary role to former Liberian strongman Charles Taylor and his merry band of thugs. The other offer is from a team that wants to produce a made-for-TV movie. Their version would be much more fictional with the lead character be a reporter who tracks Bout through Africa (think Indiana Jones with a tape recorder in lieu of a whip). Farah has to make his decision as to who to go with in the next 24 hours.

You can find information on the Landesmann project on several Hollywood websites. The Farah project hasn't hit the press yet. Thought you might want to know.
Thanks Andreas !

This is what shows on
"Arms and the Man (2005)"
Plot Outline: An American federal agent goes on an international hunt for some stolen plutonium -- a story inspired by an article on Victor Bout, widely known as the world's biggest arms trafficker. "

Merchant of Death, the book... Former West African Bureau Chief of the Washington Post Douglas Farah and Los Angeles Times National Correspondent Stephen Braun detail how a small circle of U.S. officials and international investigators worked doggedly to shut down Viktor Bout's arms pipelines, only to be trumped by Bout's ingenuity and by their own inability-and, in some cases, unwillingness-to confront the dark side of the new world order.

Further reports and updates will be welcomed.

Back to Victor Bout's file

Created: 01-04-03 Updated: 30-10-04