It’s the most inequitable of trades at the most unlikely of times, but perhaps the intense pressure of the moment is why the exchange of a US basketball star for a Russian arms dealer took place now. Both Viktor Bout and Brittney Griner are in jail on accusations of absurdly different crimes. Griner was sentenced to a Russian penal colony for having a single gramme of cannabis oil in his possession. Bout is alleged to be the most prolific arms dealer in recent decades, fueling conflicts in Africa and elsewhere – and, more specifically, being convicted in a US court of plotting to kill Americans.
Bout, a 55-year-old born in Soviet Tajikistan who has spent the past 11 years in an Illinois prison, was dubbed “international arms trafficking enemy number one” by former U.S. attorney Preet Bharara, speaking at Bout’s sentencing hearing in 2012.
Russia’s Viktor Bout Merchant of Death freed in prisoner swap for Brittney Griner
“For a long time, the Russian Federation has been negotiating with the United States on the release of V. A. Bout,” the ministry said in a statement. “Washington categorically refused dialogue on the inclusion of the Russian [citizen] in the exchange scheme. Nevertheless, the Russian Federation continued to actively work to rescue our compatriot.”
“She’s safe. She’s on a plane. She’s on her way home,” President Biden said at the White House, announcing the exchange for Whitney Griner. “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. This is a day we’ve worked toward for a long time. We never stopped pushing for her release.”
Notably, the exchange of Griner for Bout leaves retired U.S. Russian prison for Marine Paul Whelan. Whelan has been in Russian detention for nearly four years. He was found guilty of what the United States has deemed bogus espionage allegations.
Was Viktor Bout the inspiration for Nicolas Cage’s character Yuri Orlov in “Lord of War”?
Bout was the inspiration for actor Nicolas Cage’s enigmatic international arms dealer character Yuri Orlov in the 2005 film “Lord of War,” and his rise to fame as an arms dealer who notoriously evaded arrest and traveled with multiple passports was also the subject of a 2007 biography, “Merchant of Death.” He earned the nickname “Merchant of Death” among American intelligence officials as he evaded capture for years.
However, in the Hollywood version of the story, Cage’s character Yuri Orlov, an international arms dealer, eludes his American authorities because Bout was still on the loose at the time the film was made. Three years later, he was detained.
Why does Russia want Viktor Bout?
Viktor Bout was obviously a huge asset than the Kremlin because 99% of big time Russian criminals are tied in some way to the Kremlin, when Bout was arrested in Bangkok in ’08 the Kremlin fought tooth and nail to prevent extradition until he finally was in 2010. Far beyond what they’d do for anyone who isn’t quite valuable and knows things they don’t want public, like offering steep discounts on oil and free fighter aircraft to Thailand to not extradite him.
Susceptibly, Bout was directed by the Kremlin to supply certain groups, ie terrorists fighting the US or rebel groups in nations the Kremlin would like destabilised. He didn’t talk and get a deal, odds are he has knowledge of Kremlin operations by virtue of being a direct part of them, operations that would greatly embarrass the Kremlin should they become public.
The prisoner swap excluded Whelan, who is now the only American detained in Russia, despite the fact that the State Department has declared him wrongfully detained. “We’ve not forgotten about Paul Whelan, who has been unjustly detained by Russia for years,” Biden said. “This was not a choice of which American to bring home.”
Russia had pushed for Bout’s release for years, and as speculation about a deal grew, the upper house of parliament opened a display of paintings he created while imprisoned, ranging from Soviet dictator Josef Stalin to a kitten.
“It would be a big mistake for the U.S. to give up Viktor Bout, as much as one feels compassion for Ms. Griner and Mr. Whelan,” said Koffler, the author of “Putin’s Playbook: Russia’s Secret Plan to Defeat America.