Who is Viktor Bout, Russian arms dealer swapped for Brittney Griner?

RU-24 Russian Television via AP
Dec. 9, 2022, Russian citizen Viktor Bout, right, who was exchanged for U.S. basketball player Brittney Griner, boards a Russian plane after a swap, in the airport of Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

Russia has released U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner, who had been detained in Russia since February, President Biden said Thursday. In exchange, Moscow secured the freedom of Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer behind bars in the United States, according to U.S. officials and Russia’s foreign ministry.

The exchange ended months of speculation that the Biden administration was contemplating a swap to bring Griner home. The fate of one of the world’s best women’s basketball players came down to what the U.S. government decided to do with an imprisoned Russian arms dealer nicknamed the “Merchant of Death,” whose wild exploits once inspired a Hollywood film starring Nicolas Cage.

Viktor Bout, 55, is a former Soviet military translator who became an international air transport figure after the fall of communism. He was serving a 25-year sentence at a medium-security prison in Illinois for conspiring to kill U.S. nationals and selling weapons to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

The Kremlin long pushed for Bout’s release, calling his conviction “unlawful.” Over the summer, media reports in Russia hinted that he could be swapped for Griner and former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan.

Griner pleaded guilty to drug charges stemming from her arrest at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport in February. She was sentenced to 91/2 years in prison in August and transferred to a Russian penal colony last month. Whelan, who was arrested and charged with spying in 2018 in a trial he called politically motivated, was not ultimately included in the exchange Thursday.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in July that the United States made a “substantial proposal” to Russia to secure the two Americans’ release – but declined to say whether Bout was part of the deal.

Russia’s foreign ministry said the swap took place Thursday at the Abu Dhabi airport in the United Arab Emirates after lengthy negotiations with Washington. Bout was given a conditional grant of clemency that was not completed until U.S. officials in the UAE had verified that Griner was there on Thursday, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said.

Steve Zissou, Bout’s New York-based lawyer, called the swap fair.

“As I have urged for some time, given the fifteen long years that Viktor Bout has been in custody since the United States government targeted him in 2006, his exchange for Brittney Griner, who has only been in custody for a few months, is fair,” Zissou told The Washington Post. “Hopefully, this is just the first of many reasonable agreements between the U.S. and Russia that will lead to better relations and a safer world.”

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What led to Bout’s arrest?

Bout was arrested in Thailand in 2008 in a sting operation after spending years dodging international arrest warrants and asset freezes.

“Today, one of the world’s most prolific arms dealers is being held accountable for his sordid past,” Attorney General Eric H. Holder said when Bout was convicted in federal court in New York in 2011.

The focus of the trial in Manhattan was Bout’s role in supplying weapons to FARC, a Marxist-Leninist guerrilla group that staged a decades-long insurgency in Colombia. The United States, which worked with Thai authorities to apprehend Bout, said the weapons were intended to kill Americans.

But Bout had an even longer history of weapons dealing in some of the most dangerous and impoverished places in the world. His relationship in the 1990s with the Taliban led the Los Angeles Times to profile him in 2002, quoting a former U.S. government official who described him as the “Donald Trump or Bill Gates” of arms trafficking. He also was known to have links to Liberia’s Charles Taylor and Libya’s Moammar Gaddafi.

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Why would Moscow care so much about him?

“That’s a good question, because Viktor Bout’s a creep,” CIA Director William J. Burns responded to that question at the Aspen Security Forum in July.

Bout himself has denied the charges against him, telling The Washington Post in 2002 that he was simply a man in the “air transportation business” and, presciently, that the accusations against him sounded like something out of a “Hollywood action film.”

And publicly at least, Russian officials have maintained that Bout was an entrepreneur who was unfairly targeted for political reasons. He has become something of a cause celebre in Russia, with government buildings in Moscow exhibiting his prison-made artworks last year.

Zissou, the New York-based lawyer representing Bout, said much of the deterioration in U.S.-Russia relations could be tied to the case.

“The United States government set out to make a case against him for crimes that could be charged and prosecuted in an American court, and so they lured him into a sting operation,” Zissou told The Washington Post in July. “This targeting of one of its citizens is seen in Russia as a direct attack on its sovereignty.”

But outsiders have long suggested that Bout had ties to the Russian government that enabled him to gain a foothold in the international arms smuggling world.

David Whelan, the brother of Paul Whelan, said it was “understandable, if disappointing” that the focus was on Bout.

“There are hundreds of Russian prisoners held by the Bureau of Prisons and, if the U.S. decided to engage in a prisoner swap, many more names that might be palatable,” David Whelan said, pointing to one – Roman Seleznev, who has been imprisoned in the United States since 2011 on charges related to hacking and fraud – as another prisoner whose release the Russian government has sought.

But Russian journalist Andrei Soldatov said that even after all these years, Russia still seemed to care strongly about Bout’s case. He wasn’t just a hacker who was used occasionally by Russian intelligence services such as the FSB or the GRU but “was really important for military intelligence,” Soldatov wrote in an email.

Plus, “he kept his cool in prison [and] never exposed anything to the Americans, as far as I can tell,” Soldatov said.

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What is his link to Americans imprisoned in Russia?

On paper, there is no link.

Indeed, there is little comparison between the enormous accusations against Bout and the minor charges that Griner faced.

Two-time U.S. Olympic gold medalist Griner was arrested in February on charges of possessing cannabis oil while returning to play for a Russian team.

Although Whelan was arrested three years before Griner on espionage charges, his family and friends have said it is inconceivable that the charges are true. In 2020, U.S. officials said that his conviction was a “mockery of justice.”

But relatives and supporters of both Griner and Whelan said that they hoped a deal could be struck with Moscow that would free the two U.S. citizens in exchange for Bout.

In April, the U.S. government agreed to a prisoner swap in which retired Marine Trevor Reed returned from Russia in exchange for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot serving a 20-year prison sentence in Connecticut for drug trafficking.

Although such prisoner swaps between Washington and Moscow are unusual, they are not unprecedented. In 1986, the detained American journalist Nicholas Daniloff was swapped for the Soviet physicist Gennadi Zakharov. In more recent years, the United States has exchanged prisoners with Iran.

“She’s safe. She’s on a plane. She’s on her way home,” Biden said of Griner on Thursday. “After months of being unjustly detained in Russia, held under intolerable circumstances, Brittney will soon be back in the arms of her loved ones. And she should have been there all along.”

The swap doesn’t necessarily portend improvements to the relationship between Moscow and Washington, which Moscow said “are still in quite a sad state,” according to Russian news agency Tass. The talks “were exclusively about the topic of the exchange,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was quoted as saying.

Whelan, not included in Thursday’s exchange, remains in Russian custody. David Whelan released a statement Thursday celebrating Griner’s release but expressing disappointment that his brother had not been included.

“Despite the possibility that there might be an exchange without Paul, our family is still devastated,” he said.