In 2011, when the United States sentenced Viktor Bout to 25 years in prison, his lawyer left a final statement on the air. “Bout believes this is not the end.” The phrase became a prophecy in recent days, when it was revealed that Bout’s name would be being considered for a prisoner exchange in order to free basketball player Brittney Griner, sentenced to 9 years in prison for carrying 0.70 grams of marijuana.
As leaked by US media, the US would be negotiating Bout’s extradition in exchange for the release of Griner and Paul Whelan, a former Marine arrested in Russia in 2018 and sentenced to 16 years in prison for alleged espionage. On Wednesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that the United States had made a “substantial proposal” to Russia to release Whelan and Griner. Although Blinken declined to give details, a source confirmed to CNN that Washington was willing to trade Bout.
This Friday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that the country is “ready to face this issue”, but “only within the framework of the communication channel established by Presidents Biden and Putin”. “There is a special channel established by the presidents and, despite some declarations, it still works,” he said.
The news has unleashed a debate in the US about the dangers of giving in to Putin’s “blackmail”, especially when the prisoner exchange includes a name like Viktor Bout, an arms dealer and nicknamed “the merchant of death”. Bout is believed to have helped arm the Taliban and the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, the Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone, the Charles Taylor regime in Liberia, Unita in Angola, various Congolese factions, and the Abu Sayyaf, an Islamic terrorist group in Philippines.
The question of many is whether an arms dealer is comparable to a basketball star arrested for carrying two vaping cartridges containing 0.252 and 0.45 grams of cannabis oil, prescribed by his doctor to treat pain.
Katie Austinfounder of the Conflict Awareness Project, a nonprofit organization that investigates major arms dealers, expressed concern about the possibility of Bout’s release in statements to Guardian. “I spent almost 15 years chasing Bout around the world to stop his trade in deaths… My life and the lives of other colleagues and UN peacekeepers were put on the line to bring him to justice,” he said.
“You can’t imagine how much I’ve wrestled emotionally with the idea of Bout’s release…Putin knew very well what he was doing by turning Brittney Griner into a bargaining chip…In a post-release situation… Putin will surely use Bout as a weapon in areas of the world where the merchant of death has a proven track record,” he warned.
In addition, others ask to include in the same agreement Marc Fogel, a former history teacher at the Anglo-American School in Moscow, was arrested last August after trying to enter Russia with medical marijuana prescribed by his doctor to treat “severe spinal pain.” Russian authorities sentenced him to 14 years hard labor, accusing him of committing “large-scale drug trafficking.”
It is the case of Michael McFaul, former US Ambassador to Russia during the Obama administration, which applauded the Biden administration’s decision, but called for Fogel’s inclusion. “I applaud the efforts of Blinken and the State Department to bring home Britney Griner and Paul Whelan, even if it means handing over Viktor Bout. I only hope they include Marc Fogel. Bout is a true criminal. He would be worth the release of 3 Americans.”
i applaud @SecBlinken & @StateDept Britney Griner and Paul Whelan’s efforts to bring home even if it means handing over Viktor Bout. I support the swap. I just hope they include Marc Fogel in the deal. Bout is a real criminal. He was worth freeing 3 innocent Americans.
— Michael McFaul (@McFaul) July 27, 2022
Right now he is probably the most high-profile Russian arrested in the US and since he entered prison Russia has been calling for his release. During the trial, Viktor Bout was considered by the attorney general at the time, Eric Holder, as “one of the biggest arms dealers in the world”. His exploits have even inspired the 2005 Hollywood movie “The Warlord,” starring Nicolas Cage, but much of his life remains a mystery.
It is believed that born in 1967 in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, son of an accountant and a car mechanic. He trained as an interpreter at the Soviet Military Institute for Foreign Languages in Moscow and spent some time with the Soviet Army working as a translator in Angola in the late 1980s, rising to the rank of lieutenant.
Bout forged a criminal career dedicated to arms trafficking, with collaborations with the most important armed groups from all over the world until he was arrested in a luxury hotel in Bangkok in 2008. It happened in a spectacular US operation in which undercover Drug Enforcement Administration agents posed as rebels from the Colombian group FARC, and recorded trying to sell weapons to use against Americans.
applause and criticism
Bout was never forgotten by Moscow which, in 2020, had already proposed an exchange between the arms dealer and Paul Whelan. So, the US government rejected the proposal.
His case has become a cause célèbre in Russia, with senior officials repeatedly pressing for his release. Last year, the Moscow civic chamber made a exhibition with 24 of his works of art made in prison, including several self-portraits. If he returns to Moscow, Bout is likely to receive a hero’s welcome, similar to the one enjoyed by Anna Chapman, the Russian spy who was part of a 2010 prisoner exchange.
And if one is a star despite the crimes committed, Brittney Griner does not have the support of all Americans. This Thursday, when his sentence was known, Joe Biden reiterated that it was “unacceptable” and asked Russia for “his immediate release”, while promising that his government will continue to work “relentlessly, looking for all possible ways” so that Brittney and Paul Whelan “Go home and be safe ASAP.”
However, the country’s most conservative winger has criticized the WNBA star by recalling that, in 2020, the player had asked that the national anthem no longer be played at gamesas a form of protest against police violence against black people in the country.
“I honestly think we shouldn’t play the anthem this season. That we should take that position,” he said, refusing to take the court as the anthem played. “I’m not going to be there to listen to it. We don’t get asked enough about what’s going on in our communities, and I think that’s a shame,” he said. “Yeah, we’re here to play basketball. But basketball means nothing in a world we can’t live in. We can’t wake up and do what we want to do without fear of being stopped by mistake.”
Prisoner exchanges have been a part of US and Russian history for years. The first major exchange between the US and the Soviet Union occurred in February 1962 when the Americans handed over Rudolf Abela KGB spy, in exchange for the American pilot Gary Powers, whose U2 spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union two years earlier. The exchange, which took place on the Glienicke Bridge on a cold, cloudy Berlin morning, was later adapted into a film by Spielberg.
A little more than 20 years later, the US carried out what one US official called the largest spy swap in history. The United States released four spies from Eastern Europe in exchange for 25 people arrested in East Germany and Poland. In more recent times, 10 Russian agents detained by the US were exchanged in 2010 for four Russian officials the Kremlin had jailed for their illegal contacts with the West.
In April this year, former US Marine Trevor Reed was extradited to the US after three years in detention in Russia, accused of attacking a Moscow police officer and sentenced to nine years in prison. In exchange for Reed, the United States released pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was sentenced in 2011 to 20 years in prison for conspiring to import more than $100 million worth of cocaine into the United States.
Despite these and other exchanges over the years, none included a figure of Bout’s notoriety.