Anyone who meets with an arms dealer in Moscow can expect the rendezvous to take place in a dark bar in the suburbs, while walking in a densely wooded park or perhaps in an underground parking garage. The Starlite Diner on Mayakovsky Square, on the other hand, is an unlikely meeting point. The fast food restaurant is popular with local youth and foreign tourists and is brightly lit, saturated with the smell of hamburgers and covered with Elvis posters.
Nevertheless, Sergei Bout and Richard Chichakli, who are suspected of being involved in arms deals, have indeed chosen to meet at this popular diner. It isn't only because they "were here often with him," as they say under their breath. It's also because the spot the two men have chosen, on the protected veranda and with a view of the door, gives them a good vantage point. The Starlite, with its red plastic chairs, is a restaurant frequented by many different people, a place where no one is conspicuous, young or old, jeans or dressed in a suit. The restaurant is easy to observe but difficult to monitor. Perhaps spy novel author John le Carré would even have given his blessing to this restaurant as a place to discuss business deals involving deadly missiles and Kalashnikovs.
Sergei Bout, 49, is a Russian citizen. His foreign bank accounts are frozen and he faces the threat of arrest if he travels to the West. Richard Chichakli, 51, is a Syrian-born United States citizen who fled from Texas and now lives in Moscow with his Russian wife. His bank accounts are also frozen, and his name is on a United Nations list of arms embargo breakers.
Right After Bin Laden on Most-Wanted List
The two men are believed to have had particularly close ties to the man they refer to as "him," also known as the "merchant of death": Viktor Bout, 43, who allegedly made hundreds of millions of dollars in the illegal international arms trade. If the allegations about Bout are true, his network of companies has provided weapons shipments to virtually every armed conflict of the last few decades. Some Western experts are convinced that Bout has spread more terror and is responsible for more deaths than Osama bin Laden, which explains why his name was listed second next to that of the al-Qaida leader on the US intelligence agencies' internal most-wanted list.
Sergei, burly, casually dressed and foul-mouthed -- a Bud Spencer type -- is the brother of the merchant of death. Richard, athletic, distinguished looking and smooth-talking -- more of a George Clooney type -- was Viktor Bout's business partner and best friend for years. The "Lord of War" himself has been in a Bangkok prison since 2008. After a prolonged legal tug-of-war, it now seems likely that Thailand will imminently extradite him to the United States.
His trial promises to offer an unprecedented glimpse into the shadowy world of the arms dealer, a prospect that undoubtedly has politicians and generals in Africa, Asia and Latin America deeply concerned. But they aren't the only ones. Bout's secretive connections reach all the way up to senior levels of government in Moscow and Washington. If he talks, the revelations could cause a serious rift between the two countries, or what Time magazine calls a "new ice age."
'Viktor Wouldn't Hurt a Cat'
Chichakli believes his friend -- and he too, by extension -- is the target of a CIA conspiracy. "We made deals 15 years ago. It was a totally legal cargo business," he says. Although Chichakli claims that he no longer had any business connections with Bout after 2004, a United Nations report suggests otherwise, indicating that Chichakli provided financial support for Bout's weapons deals. US authorities seized his $1.5 million Texas estate and his two Mercedes sports cars, a slap in the face that still upsets him today. "I was never guilty of anything, and it's out of the question that my gentle friend Viktor, who wouldn't hurt a cat, could have smuggled weapons on a grand scale."
Sergei Bout, an aircraft mechanic, describes his brother as a humanist, a family man, a vegetarian interested in saving the rainforest -- and a clever businessman. The fact that Viktor happened to have purchased or leased aircraft at the right time, aircraft that he then deployed all over the world, was not only legal but a brilliant business concept, says his older brother.
What kinds of cargo did Viktor Bout transport? "Everything -- from water filters to frozen chickens, refrigerators to stereos."
When asked whether his brother transported weapons, Sergei Bout says, with a sigh: "No one looks that closely, especially in Africa, as long as the freight documents are in order. The owner and the pilot can't be held responsible for what's being loaded onto the plane. Why don't you bring charges against a taxi driver if one of his passengers is carrying unpleasant things in his suitcase, or against a mailman who is unknowingly carrying nasty little packages?"
But if investigators are to be believed, there were quite a few "unpleasant things" and "nasty little packages" on Bout's planes. He certainly may have transported flowers, food and electronic devices with his dozens of Antonovs, Ilyushins and Yakovlevs. He was even known to have flown aid materials to disaster zones and UN peacekeepers to crisis regions. Nevertheless, Bout earned a large share of his profits with other, more deadly cargo.
In addition to Bout's brother and his business partner, SPIEGEL has interviewed many other witnesses, including his wife, his Thai attorney, journalists who accompanied him in the chaos of African wars, a professional Bout hunter at the US National Security Council and an idealistic Bout pursuer who began tracking him down at a former Belgian monastery. Military experts and members of the intelligence community also provided information.
The saga of the merchant of death, a tale of blood diamonds and shipments of coltan and gold, unfolds in some of the world's major cities, places like Moscow, Washington, Bangkok and Brussels. But the minor outposts of war also play an important role: poorly guarded arms warehouses in the former Soviet republics; a jungle airstrip in northeastern Congo; the American Balad Airbase in Iraq; Kandahar, a terrorist stronghold in Afghanistan; and a villa surrounded by bodyguards in Liberia's war-ravaged capital Monrovia.
Taking Advantage of Globalization
The Viktor Bout story is the tale of an unscrupulous businessman who cleverly took advantage of globalization, and who appears to have provided weapons to virtually every army in the world: from the Americans to the Taliban and their enemies in the Northern Alliance, and from Marxist guerillas in Colombia to child soldiers in Sierra Leone. Still, there is one thing Bout cannot be accused of: discriminating against anyone because of their skin color or political views. Anyone able to pay was supplied -- discreetly and reliably -- with every deadly weapon under the sun.
The Bout case also shines a light on years of people looking the other way and ignoring the truth, and on strange alliances. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, in an effort to prevent the extradition of his fellow Russian, has spoken out publicly on his behalf, even taking the highly unusual step of suggesting that Bout is innocent. Officials in Washington have remained silent. Under these circumstances, will prosecutors even be able to prove that the arms dealer did in fact commit crimes? Will he pay for his alleged offences, and will others, people with political influence, be pilloried in the process?
The film "Lord of War," in which Nicolas Cage portrays an arms dealer who strongly resembles Bout, caused a stir worldwide when it was released in 2005. In the film Cage's character, Yuri Orlov, says: "There are over 550 million firearms in worldwide circulation. That's one firearm for every 12 people on the planet. The only question is: How do we arm the other 11?" When asked about the quote, Bout said: "It's cynical. Too bad for Cage, though. He deserved a better screenplay."
Who exactly is this Viktor Anatolyevich Bout?