Cold Case

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CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT / AFP/ Getty Images

A matter of time In a Bangkok cell, Bout waits for the U.S. charges to wind their way through the Thai legal system

He's been called "the lord of war" and "the merchant of death." He stands accused of selling weapons to the world's most murderous regimes from Afghanistan's Taliban to Liberia's Charles Taylor, who is now on trial in the Hague for crimes against humanity. A movie starring Nicholas Cage immortalizes his alleged nefarious exploits. But the convoluted tale of Viktor Bout, the accused billionaire Russian arms dealer languishing in a steamy Bangkok prison cell, is bigger than just a provocative story about a notorious character. As the U.S. and Russia battle over Bout's anticipated extradition to New York to stand trial, his case threatens to cast a new chill on relations between the two powers.

Besides being charged with conspiring to sell weapons, Bout (pronounced Boot) is accused of conspiring to murder American citizens. While he denies all the charges, if convicted he could spend the rest of his life in jail. But U.S. law-enforcement officials may be less interested in how long the 43-year-old Russian sits behind bars than in the road map he could draw of the labyrinthine realm of weapons trafficking and the names of those — some, perhaps, in officialdom — who are a part of that trade. Whether or not he is found guilty, "the Bout case is important because it sends a message to illegal arms traffickers that the age of impunity is over,'' says Hugh Griffiths, an expert on arms smuggling at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, an independent think tank.

Its impact on global security makes illegal arms trafficking possibly the most destabilizing of all black businesses, fueling insurgencies, guerrilla wars, terrorist groups and organized crime. Experts estimate the industry's value at between $2 billion and $10 billion a year, depending on how many conflicts are raging at any given time. Arms trafficking also often requires collusion, at the least, with security officials or political figures to gain access to stockpiles. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, the biggest sources of black-market weapons have been Russia, its former republics and Eastern bloc states. During the early 1990s, the chaos of the collapsing communist order would have presented a lucrative opportunity for a former Soviet military intelligence officer with a capitalist flair for business like Bout.

The U.N. and other international bodies say Bout applied his talents to the smuggling of weapons. But it wasn't until March 6, 2008, that Bout was arrested in Bangkok in a joint Thai-U.S. undercover sting. Agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) claim to have enticed him by posing as members of FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. It was a convincing ruse: Latin America has been the largest market for illegal weapons in recent years, and no group has been a bigger buyer than FARC, a violent Marxist guerrilla force also engaged in drug-dealing. The agents allege that Bout offered to supply them with surface-to-air missiles, antiaircraft guns, AK-47 assault rifles, millions of rounds of ammunition, rocket and grenade launchers and an unmanned aerial vehicle.

If anyone could supply such an arsenal, it would be Bout, says Douglas Farah, co-author of a biography of Bout called Merchant of Death. "Bout was the biggest, the best and most efficient for more than a decade," he says. "At his peak, he was a one-stop shop for not only guns, but sophisticated weapons systems, including attack helicopters and land-mine systems." According to Farah, Washington and U.N. reports, Bout funneled weapons to dozens of armed groups in Africa, Latin America and the Middle East, many engaged in egregious human-rights violations. Bout, his lawyers and the Russian government have all asserted that this portrait of him is a lie cooked up by a disgruntled former U.N. official and fame-seeking journalists like Farah. "I have never traded in weapons; I have never sold weapons," Bout said in a statement read by his wife at an Aug. 27 press conference. He maintains he runs a legitimate air-cargo business.

On Aug. 20, Bout looked certain to be cargo himself when a Thai appeals court, reversing a lower-court decision against extradition, ruled that he should be handed over. The U.S. immediately dispatched a plane to Bangkok to fetch the Russian, only to return empty-handed a few days later upon learning that more legal hurdles needed to be cleared. Thai prosecutors, at the behest of Washington, had filed additional charges against Bout that had yet to be heard. The U.S. has since asked Thailand to drop those charges to pave the way for his handover. Meanwhile, Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov blasted the Aug. 20 decision as "nonlegal" and "political," and said Bangkok had succumbed to "external" pressure. Another Foreign Ministry official, Vladimir Kozin, warned in the Moscow Times that Bout's extradition "may inevitably affect Russian-U.S. relations to the detriment of the U.S. effort to 'reset' them."

Why would Russia risk rekindling Cold War tensions over one supposedly legitimate businessman? Farah claims that Bout, as a former Russian soldier who can speak seven languages, siphoned off national arms stockpiles to sell using his links to military intelligence and that he also used help from "senior Soviet officials" to set up his business and act as his protectors. Bout, for his part, has denied having connections to senior Russian officials, adding, "I don't possess any secrets of the Russian state or its leaders." If he does, the diplomatic fallout from a U.S. trial could be severe.

With his wife and family still living in Russia, the odds on Bout working with U.S. prosecutors in exchange for leniency may be slim. And Bout himself reportedly harbors some of the old enmity between the superpowers: according to Bertil Lintner, a Bangkok-based journalist who interviewed Bout in 2008 in his Thai prison cell, the Russian unleashed a hate-filled tirade against the U.S.

Still, Bout's alleged anti-Americanism apparently did not get in the way of a deal. American media have reported that U.S. officialdom engaged in Iraq with companies ultimately associated with Bout. His planes have also ferried U.N. peacekeepers to conflict zones in Africa where others refused to fly. That's not unusual for traffickers, according to Griffiths. "Like Bout, they transport legal equipment and supplies in support of operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and they ship humanitarian aid," he says. What Bout knows may be as embarrassing as it is illuminating.

In Bangkok, the Bout case has also been roiling Thai politics. Opposition lawmakers — and then Bout himself — accused an aide to Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva of asking him how to bring down the plane of Thaksin Shinawatra, a former Prime Minister who is now a jet-setting fugitive from Thai justice. The aide, who admitted to interviewing Bout, has denied posing the question. In a rambling handwritten letter, Bout petitioned the Prime Minister not to allow his extradition. While Abhisit has said he cannot interfere with the courts, once the legal process is complete, the final decision to extradite will rest with the Prime Minister and the Cabinet, according to Panitan Wattanayagorn, a government spokesman.

If Bout is indeed who his accusers say he is, then his knowledge could help the fight against the world's major arms traffickers, one that on the surface Washington looks to be winning. In the past three years, U.S. sting operations have netted several suspected international arms kingpins. Yet, despite these arrests, the laws of supply and demand keep the trade flourishing. While the U.S. grapples with prosecuting the old guard, smaller, specialist dealers are already filling the void. Even if Bout is found guilty, the illicit arms business is sure to endure.

This article originally appeared in the September 20, 2010 issue of Time Asia magazine.