In April 2012, Viktor Bout, perhaps the single biggest private arms trader in the world, was convicted in a New York court and sentenced to twenty-five years in prison.
Bout, a Russian citizen, began his private business as a military transporter and weapons supplier in the early 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union. He acquired a fleet of Soviet military aircraft including Antonov and Ilyushin cargo planes as surplus of the Cold War and employed them in operations to deliver weapons to various combatants in Africa.
By his own admission, he had flown weapons to anti-Taliban forces in Afghanistan during the 1990s and aided the French government in transporting goods and UN peacekeepers to Rwanda after the genocide there. According to UN documents, in exchange for illicit diamonds Bout had supplied former Liberian President Charles Taylor with weapons to help destabilize Sierra Leone.
Previously Bout had supplied arms to both sides in the Angolan civil war and also sold and delivered weapons to various warlords across Central and North Africa. Operating through Eastern Europe, Bout transported weapons through Bulgaria, Moldova and Ukraine to Liberia and Angola in the first years of the new millennium.
Indeed, there were few conflicts in the world over the past two decades where Bout’s weapons were not present. So spectacular was his rise as an arms dealer that his story served as the basis for the 2005 film Lord of War.
In court, Bout was found guilty of conspiracy to kill Americans and U.S. officials by delivering anti-aircraft missiles and aiding a terrorist organization.
The case against Bout was built upon a sting operation with DEA agents posing as would-be buyers from FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. Bout was prepared to supply anti-aircraft missiles so that FARC could shoot down American pilots working with Colombian government officials.
The Lessons of Viktor Bout
Bout’s experiences as a gunrunner illustrate important patterns in the history of the global arms trade since the advent of firearms in the early modern era: where weapons are sold and bought, who sells and buys them (individuals or states), which weapons (new or second-hand), and whether the weapons’ sales are legal in the context of shifting national and international law.
Bout also exemplifies the reemergence of the leading role of private suppliers in the global arms business—as opposed to the country-to-country transactions that dominated the Cold War era.
To be sure, weapons sales by sovereign states have not disappeared. In 2011, the United States sold a record-shattering $66.3 billion in weapons globally (more than 75% of the world arms market that year) and considerably more than the previous record of $31 billion.
But, Bout is a descendent of a long line of private “merchants of death”—a pantheon that includes the likes of Basil Zaharoff, Prodromos Bodosakis-Athanasiades, and Samuel Cummings.
Bout’s arrest also reflects a long line of efforts on the part of the international community to control and restrict the arms trade.
In one regard, Bout’s activities mark a significant change in the history of the global arms trade: for first time, thanks to the collapse of communism, black market supplies are more plentiful and cheaper than newly produced weapons.
The global arms trade has long been spurred on by the development of new weapons, from matchlock to flintlock to breech loading to automatic weapons, for example. With each advance in weapons technology, arms dealers and military elites looked for places and peoples to sell their old, technologically inferior weapons to make room for the cutting edge technology that would win wars.
But the flood of second-hand, cold-war weapons into the market has made the last two decades unprecedented in private arms dealing.
The Global Arms Trade is Born: Early Modern Europe and Africa
While the trade in weapons has blanketed the planet, Bout’s dealings in Africa reflect how that continent, more than others, has for centuries been saturated by the arms trade to disastrous effect.
Starting in the sixteenth century, European traders began trafficking arms into African, American, and, to a lesser extent, Asian markets.