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US traded arms dealer Viktor Bout for Griner, but who is he?

December 9, 2022

Viktor Bout, Russian arms dealer, has been exchanged for US basketball star Brittney Griner. Who is the man called "The Merchant of Death" and why did Moscow campaign so tirelessly for him?

Viktor Bout boards a private jet in Abu Dhabi en route to Moscow
Russia haas fought tirelessly for Bout's release since he was arrested in Thailand in 2008Image: SNA/IMAGO

In mid-February — a few days before Russia invaded Ukraine — two-time Olympic basketball champion Brittney Griner was arrested at Moscow's Sheremetyevo International Airport after cannabis-based vaping liquid was found in her luggage.

In August, she was sentenced to 9 years in a Russian prison on drug charges. Earlier today, Griner arrived in the United States as part of the prisoner swamp between Moscow and Washington.

In exchange for Griner, the US gave up Russian citizen Vicktor Bout, who was serving a 25-year sentence in a US federal penitentiary "for conspiring to kill US citizens and aiding terrorist organizations." Over the decades, Bout has been portrayed in the media as a mysterious international character, even serving as inspiration for Hollywood directors.

Who is Viktor Bout?

Who is infamous Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout?

Viktor Bout was born in Dushanbe, the capital of what was then the Soviet Republic of Tajikistan, in 1967. He is a former military officer who served in the Soviet Army. In the 1990s and early 2000s, after the fall of the USSR, he ran what he says was an air transport business, delivering goods to dangerous parts of the world.

It was during this time that Victor Bout caught the attention of the United Nations (UN), and when the body began investigating his involvement in the illegal arms trade breaching UN embargoes and fueling mass killing and war crimes in African countries such as Angola, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and the Congo.

US authorities became interested in Bout in the early 2000's, following media reports about his alleged military aid to the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Bout denied all allegations, claiming that he provided weapons for commanders fighting against the Taliban.

In 2002, Belgian authorities issued an arrest warrant, Bout, however, managed to flee the country, finding refuge in the United Arab Emirates, South Africa and then Russia. American officials also made attempts to hold Bout accountable. But although they froze his assets in 2004, they were unable to find legal grounds to bring him to trial.

Four years later, in 2008, agents from the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) reached out to Bout through former associates of his. They introduced themselves as buyers working for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) — a leftist Latin American militia hostile to the United States.

In March 2008, Bout was detained by authorities in Thailand as US undercover agents engaged him in discussions about weapons shipments to the FARC. Bout was extradited to the US in November 2010, where he was convicted for conspiring to kill US citizens and officials.

Bout had been found guilty of selling heavy weaponry to the FARC, a disbanded Marxist Colombian rebel group that US authorities say is a terrorist organization. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov criticized Bout's arrest and extradition, saying it was part of Washington's political pressure on Bangkok and "an example of blatant injustice."

Moscow promised to fight for Bout's release and his return to Russia.

Why was Moscow keen on securing the return of Viktor Bout?

Why did Russia want Viktor Bout back?

Many experts suggest Viktor Bout was useful to Russian intelligence. And yet, the arms dealer has denied any connection to the Russian government or access to state secrets.

"I have no secret information about the Russian state, and I do not know its leaders. I have worked neither for Russian companies, nor state agencies," he claimed in an interview with journalists.

Over the past decade, Russian officials and media have occasionally pitched Viktor Bout's exchange for other Americans imprisoned in Russia.

In conversation with DW independent US-Russia analyst Alexandra Filippenko explained that Viktor Bout's importance for Moscow is driven by a Cold War mentality, harkening back to a time when the USSR and US were engaged in a fierce rivalry.

"In the mind of many, both Americans and Russians, Victor Bout is a shard and personification of the Soviet system. He does not recognize the new world order. That is why he is so important for the country," Filippenko explains. "He is an inside man, and in the Russian tradition, you don't give up on people who serve the system."

Was the Griner-Bout trade a diplomatic victory for Moscow?

Many observers claim the swap was a diplomatic victory for Moscow since the exchange was so uneven — Bout's and Griner's crimes were of entirely different magnitudes. Filippenko, however, does not share that opinion, saying the exchange was equal.

Viktor Bout, she says, had already served nearly half his sentence, so if US intelligence wanted to get information from him, they would have already done so.

As for Brittany Griner, she is an all-American girl, a self-made star from Texas, representing LGBTQ+ community. And given the new "gay propaganda" legislation recently introduced in Russia, her release is greatly beneficial to the Biden Administration."

Griner's release has, however, fueled debate about the fate of American Paul Whelan, a former US Marine officer who is currently serving a 16-year sentence in Russia for espionage. US officials say he is "wrongfully detained" and call the case politically motivated.

On Thursday, Russian state news agency Interfax cited Whelan's lawyer in reporting that negotiations for his release are ongoing.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, when asked on Friday if more prisoner exchanges may take place, said, "Yes, anything is possible. Contacts continue. In fact, they have never stopped ... A compromise was found, we do not reject continuing this work in the future."

US paid heavy price for Griner's release: Carolina Chimoy

Edited by: Jon Shelton