A Russian arms dealer known as the “Merchant of Death” has been photographed with the leader of the notorious Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin. The head of the paramilitary group and the arms seller, Viktor Bout, posed together for a picture as they were said to have travelled to the Russian city of Ulyanovsk.
In the Russian city, Prigozhin reportedly visited a recruitment centre for his private army and met with fighters injured and undergoing rehabilitation.
Shared on messaging app Telegram, the picture showed the two men standing next to each other.
In an audio message also shared on the platform, Prigozhin described the meeting as a “joint trip” and praised Bout as the “smartest, most educated person”.
Carrying on with his flattering comments for Bout, the Wagner Group leader and Russian caterer added Bout was “engaged in self-education, learned many languages, including Farsi” while behind bars in the US.
He added: “As for the Americans who released him from prison, of course, they made a big mistake, because he has such a sober attitude towards the existing situation in the Russian Federation that if he reveals his capabilities and implements his plans, then, of course, Russia will become much stronger, firmer, than there is today.
“Therefore, I believe that this person can do a tremendous job for the future of Russia.”
This isn’t the first time the Wagner Group head praises Bout.
In December, the leader of the paramilitary group said Bout was an “example of firmness” after he decided to join the ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party.
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Bout gained the nicknames of “Merchant of Death” and “Sanction Busters” after British minister Peter Hain read a report to the UN in 2003 about his operations as weapon dealer carried out in the 1990s and early 2000s.
The infamous arms dealer had been handed a 25 year sentence in the US in April 2012, after being found guilty of conspiracy to kill Americans and US officials, delivering anti-aircraft missiles and aiding a terrorist organisation.
He had however claimed to be an entrepreneur with a legitimate international transport business wrongly accused of trying to arm South American rebels.
In December 2022, he was freed from custody as part of a prisoner exchange with American basketball star Brittney Griner.
Prigozhin’s picture with Bout emerged as the gap between the Wagner Group chief and Vladimir Putin appears to be growing ever wider.
On Wednesday (June 14), the mercenary group chief reiterated his fighters won’t sign contracts with the Russian Defence Ministry.
In a show of defiance, coming the day after Putin had said “volunteers” fighters in Ukraine needed to sign contracts with the military command at the Kremlin, Prigozhin said: “None of Wagner’s fighters is ready to go down the path of shame again. That’s why they will not sign the contracts.”
However, he said he believed a “compromise solution” could be found between Putin and the Duma to enable Wagner Group members to receive both social guarantees and certified status as combatants.
Prigozhin has been accusing for months the Russian military leadership of failing to provide adequate support and ammunition to Wagner forces in Ukraine and so causing them to suffer higher casualties.