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“A Personified Weapon of Mass Destruction”: Ex-Arms Trafficking Inspector on Freed Russian Viktor Bout

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Brittney Griner’s release from Russia has brought renewed attention to the notorious Russian arms dealer whom the U.S. exchanged for the basketball star in a prisoner swap. Viktor Bout, the former Soviet military officer who became known as the “Merchant of Death,” was serving a 25-year prison sentence in the United States for conspiracy to commit terrorism. Authorities say Viktor Bout was involved in trafficking arms to dictators and stoking conflicts in Africa, South America and the Middle East. He has also been accused of furnishing weapons to al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and achieved particular notoriety for selling arms in Rwanda in 1998, just four years after the Rwandan genocide. Kathi Lynn Austin, a former U.N. arms trafficking investigator, says that while Griner’s release is cause for celebration, “it is such a difficult time for those of us who are aware of how Viktor Bout can be easily deployed” in conflict zones. “He is a personified weapon of mass destruction, and he has always proven himself ready, willing and able,” says Austin.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

We look more now at the Russian arms dealer who the U.S. exchanged for Brittney Griner. Viktor Bout is a former Soviet military officer who became rich as an arms dealer, is known as the “Merchant of Death.” He was serving a 25-year prison sentence in the United States for conspiracy to commit terrorism.

Our next guest is a former United Nations arms trafficking investigator who says the case allowed American companies to avoid exposure of their collusion with the U.S. government and private companies linked to then-Vice President Dick Cheney during the Iraq War, even after U.N. sanctions against him in 2004. Authorities say Viktor Bout was involved in trafficking arms to dictators, stoking conflicts in Africa, South America and the Middle East. He has also been accused of furnishing weapons to al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and achieved particular notoriety for selling arms in Rwanda in 1998, just four years after the Rwandan genocide. Before he was sentenced in 2012, Viktor Bout spoke to the Voice of Russia and said arms suppliers in the U.S. should be in prison, too.

VIKTOR BOUT: I am innocent. I don’t commit any crime. There is no crime to sit and talk. If you’re going to apply the same standards to me, then you’re going to, you know, jail all those arms dealers in America who are selling the arms and ending up killing Americans. They are involved even more than me.

AMY GOODMAN: That was over a decade ago, in 2012, when ViKtor Bout was sentenced. He has spent 11 years so far in jail, before being traded for Brittney Griner back to Russia.

We’re joined now by Kathi Lynn Austin, the former U.N. arms trafficking investigator, executive director of the Conflict Awareness Project, dedicated to tracking global weapons traffickers and exposing the illicit world of war profiteering.

We spoke to you when Viktor Bout was sentenced a decade ago. Now he’s been released in a prisoner swap. The former federal judge who sentenced him in 2011 thought his 11 years behind bars was adequate punishment. Judge Shira Scheindlin told the Associated Press in July, “He’s done enough time for what he did in this case.” She reaffirmed this, speaking out yesterday. Kathi, welcome back to Democracy Now! Your response to Viktor Bout’s release?

KATHI LYNN AUSTIN: Well, of course, as a human rights investigator, excited and celebrating with Brittney Griner’s family that she is finally brought home free. She was a pawn in — a political pawn for Putin, who wanted Viktor Bout back home ever since Viktor Bout had been arrested, ever since he had been convicted and put in prison. He was the number one sort of talk on the table between Russia and the U.S. whenever there was a foreign policy meeting between the two countries.

But it is such a difficult time for those of us who are aware of how Viktor Bout can be easily deployed in war zone, in conflict zones, Ukraine, by Putin again. He is a personified weapon of mass destruction, and he has always proven himself ready, willing and able.

AMY GOODMAN: So, if you can talk about what the media is talking about right now, what Viktor Bout was involved with, and what they’re not talking about? I mean, selling arms to al-Qaeda and to the Taliban, among other things, said he was involved in selling arms to those who would kill Americans, as well. If you can talk about that record? But also, this guy is transnational. And talk about his involvement with the U.S. government, and the U.S. government paying him, what came out in the trial, what didn’t, and what his involvement with Vice President Cheney, Halliburton and the Iraq War was all about.

KATHI LYNN AUSTIN: Well, Viktor Bout never had any particular allegiance to any government, to any ideology. Viktor Bout was all about profiting. He was all about bringing — using pilots and planes and being the Federal Express of weapons into any conflict zone where he can make a profit. Even while he was on sanctions — U.S. sanctions, U.N. sanctions, EU sanctions — he still managed, through stealth means, to evade those sanctions, to bust them.

And it was during the War in Iraq when he pulled the wool over the eyes of the Department of Defense, the Pentagon, and he was used for approximately 140 flights of bringing in logistical supplies for the U.S., while he used that cover in order to supply weapons to the enemy that we were fighting at the time.

So, we are talking about a very maniacal and a very sophisticated arms dealer. And he’s one that, being on the loose again, should cause us all — should cause a lot of concern, from a national security perspective, but from a human rights perspective, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: And the U.S. government paying him? He is very clear about this. He said, “If they are going to put me in prison, you should understand how many millions of dollars I’ve been paid by them.”

KATHI LYNN AUSTIN: Well, he was, as I mentioned, on the employ, and he was an arms trafficker, a profiteer, working for many, many different sides of conflict, wherever he can make money.

But the important thing now is, is that we need to use the release of Viktor Bout as a lightning rod. We need to use this as an opportunity to mitigate any national security threat that Viktor Bout still poses to the U.S. and its allies, and for the U.S. to be more proactive in preventing illicit global arms trafficking. That is really what I am hoping will come about from the release of Viktor Bout, that we can get the sporting community, that we can get the White House and Congress to take a deep, hard look now at this problem of these illegal arms traffickers and use this as an opportunity to box them in.

AMY GOODMAN: And if you can talk about the U.S. government saying now that they have deemed he is not a threat to the United States, and also how he was ultimately trapped in Thailand? You see these images of DEA taking him in, but that gives you the sense that it was the U.S. that was opposed to him. They did trap him. But talk about the Colombian and Guatemalan military folks that they were working with, who were also criminals themselves.

KATHI LYNN AUSTIN: Well, the DEA and the Department of Justice and law enforcement ran a very serious operation to bring Viktor Bout to justice. He was a menace, not only to the United States then and a menace to our allies. Viktor Bout had been operating in every country from Colombia to Afghanistan to Rwanda. He has literally hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of deaths on his hand. So, the U.S. finally was enabled, used taxpayers’ money and resources to bring Viktor Bout to justice. And that was a great day to take this one monster out of the equation. It went a long way for world peace and stability in the areas where Viktor Bout was operating.

But the problem with these illegal arms traffickers, and the reason why they’re sort of uniquely unregulated, or why we don’t really give enough attention to them — we have a czar for drug trafficking; we don’t have any czar going looking at the problem of global arms traffickers, which is something I’ve been discussing with the administration, with Congress. We need to take — we need to start thinking about taking steps in that direction, because they don’t have allegiances, they don’t have loyalties.

But the issue now with Viktor Bout having Putin brought — having brought him home, he will now serve as Putin’s number one asset. He will be weaponized, and he knows how to sanctions-bust. And he will be very proactive in Ukraine. And so, that’s where I would expect Viktor Bout to use his skills. Just at a time when Western sanctions are beginning to cripple Russia and Russia’s military, you’re going to have the likes and ilks of Viktor Bout.

So I think we need to use this as a lightning rod opportunity, so that there isn’t collateral damage from this incredible release of Brittney Griner and this prisoner swap, and that instead we put in place very tight controls, not only on foreign arms traffickers but also domestic ones. We have, you know, the sort of main source of weapons into Mexico. And part of the reason why we have so much trouble on our border is the result of a lot of the U.S. arms going illegally into Mexico. So, let’s use this as an opportunity to create and put in place new measures to stop these global arms traffickers —

AMY GOODMAN: Overall, the —

KATHI LYNN AUSTIN: — whether they’re operating on U.S. soil or in other places.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Kathi, overall, the involvement of the U.S. in the international arms trade, is it number one when it comes to arms sales? And how does that affect the global discussion and the interference with treaties that would stem this?

KATHI LYNN AUSTIN: Well, I think we have to look at arms trade in — there are sort of three different categories here. You have the legal arms trade, legal transfers, which the U.S. is the number one, but goes through very specific channels. We also have the gray market, which is kind of where Viktor Bout fit in, where governments will use these illegal arms traffickers when they need them to carry out national security operations or clandestine operations in other countries. And then there is the black market.

So, the gray market, the black market, we need to tighten up. That is kind of where the work that the Conflict Awareness Project is engaged, is looking at the illegal traffickers. And then, we do need to do more about reducing legal arms flows, especially to human rights-abusing regimes and in conflict areas around the globe.

AMY GOODMAN: Kathi Lynn Austin, I want to thank you so much for being with us, former U.N. arms trafficking investigator, executive director of the Conflict Awareness Project, dedicated to tracking global weapons traffickers, exposing the illicit world of war profiteering.

Next up, we look at the assassination of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. As well, we look at the visit between Chinese President Xi and the Saudi crown prince. Stay with us.

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