Mr Bout’s genius was to employ impoverished ex-Soviet pilots, ready to risk their lives for hard currency, and to send his aircraft anywhere they were needed (he rarely flew on them himself). At times that meant getting United Nations peacekeepers into Somalia, or delivering aid for the British government. More often, as the UN eventually described, he provided the logistics that kept cruel civil wars alive. Reportedly Mr Bout supplied, simultaneously, both the rebels and the government during Angola’s civil war.
Similarly, he collaborated first with the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan and then, after one of his aircraft was impounded for months by the Taliban, switched to trading with the Islamists. He probably helped the American forces to fly material to Afghanistan and certainly did so in Iraq. He was active in eastern Congo, where years of war have led to the deaths of millions. Alex Yearsley of Global Witness sums up his career thus: “There’s nothing he hasn’t done.”
The end of the Cold War certainly created the paradigm shift that allowed him to flourish, and the focus on terrorism brought him down. But he represents a fascinating period of recent history, and in many ways epitomizes the immediate post-Cold War era.