Viktor Bout, a convicted arms dealer nicknamed the “merchant of death”, has been freed by the United States one by one.women’s basketball star Brittney Griner, who had been jailed in Russia since February.
Russian state media have speculated for months that Griner, who wasfor having vape cartridges laced with cannabis oil, he could be traded for Bout, whose freedom the Kremlin has long sought.
Previous reports had focused on a potential trade for both Griner and the US Navy veteran., who was sentenced to 16 years in a Russian prison on espionage charges that he called fabricated and that the US government dismissed as false. But the final deal was only for Griner.
On July 27, Secretary of State Antony Blinken gave the first public look at efforts to bring Griner and Whelan home, saying the US.to Russia. A week later, Russian officials said they were a prisoner exchange.
Biden administration officials did not respond to US media reports at the time that the offer on the table included a possible prisoner swap for Bout. the kremlinand for several months there was no public news of any progress.
Last Sunday,Margaret Brennan in “Face the Nation” that the US has been “actively engaged over these months to try to move things forward” in an effort to “bring our people home.”
Bout, a former Soviet military translator turned international arms dealer, was jailed for more than a decade after he was lured to Thailand in a Drug Enforcement Administration sting operation that spanned three continents.
“Viktor Bout, in my eyes, is one of the most dangerous men on the face of the Earth,” said Michael Braun, former chief of operations for the US Drug Enforcement Administration, “” in 2010.
Bout, the son of an accountant and auto mechanic, was drafted into the Soviet Army when he was 18 after playing competitive volleyball as a teenager, according to a new york profile published in 2012. He served for two years in an infantry brigade in western Ukraine, then applied to the Military Institute of Foreign Languages in Moscow, where he studied Portuguese. Bout insisted to The New Yorker that he was never a spy, but others, including his former business partner and former CIA officer, said he once worked for the GRU, the Soviet foreign military intelligence agency.
In 1995, when he was 28, he began spending time in the cargo hangars at Sharjah International Airport in the United Arab Emirates and eventually launched his cargo airline, Air Cess, with a small fleet of Russian planes delivering goods to Africa and Afghanistan.
In the years that followed, Bout helped fuel civil wars around the world by supplying more sophisticated weapons, sometimes to both sides of bloody conflicts. “If I didn’t do it, someone else would,” Bout told the New Yorker.
By then, he was on the radar of American and British officials. Peter Hain, the minister of state for Africa in Britain’s Foreign Office, sounded the alarm as British soldiers in Africa came under attack with increasingly sophisticated weapons.
“Sanctions violators continue to perpetuate the conflict in Sierra Leone and Angola, with the result that countless lives are being lost and maimings are taking place. Viktor Bout is, in fact, the leading sanctions violator, and he is a merchant of death who owns air companies that transport weapons and other logistical support for rebels in Angola and Sierra Leone and mines the diamonds that pay for those weapons… aiding and abetting people who point their guns at British soldiers,” hain said told the House of Commons in 2000.
The nickname “Merchant of Death” “had come to Hain spontaneously, having read another intelligence report on Bout’s activities,” according to the book”Operation Relentless: The hunt for the richest and deadliest criminal in historyby Damien Lewis. “He struck a chord immediately and the press picked up on the uproar.”
In the United States, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, revealed sanctions against Bout and his companies who froze assets and prevented any transaction through US banks. But his business was so covered up by front companies that the US government inadvertently contracted two of his companies to deliver supplies to US troops in Iraq.
In 2007, the Drug Enforcement Administration hatched a plan to get Bout out of Russia with an arms deal that would be hard to turn down. The agency hired an undercover agent to contact a trusted Bout associate about a big deal. That exchange led to the first meeting between the fake DEA gun buyers posing as officers of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, also known as the FARC, and Bout’s associate on the island of Curaçao, about hundreds of miles off the coast of Colombia.
Bout’s associate, Andrew Smulian, traveled to Moscow to pitch the deal to Bout. Smulian met with the undercover agents two weeks later in Copenhagen and told them that his business partner liked the deal.
Weeks later, Bout was on his way to Thailand, thinking he would meet with FARC officials to discuss sending what prosecutors said it was “an arsenal of military-grade weapons” to attack US helicopters in Colombia.
During a March 2008 meeting in a Bangkok hotel conference room, Bout told DEA informants posing as FARC officials that he could airdrop the weapons into Colombia and acknowledged that the weapons could be used to kill Americans.
After listening to the meeting, Thai police and DEA agents stormed the room and arrested Bout.
“The game is over,” Bout said.
He was extradited to the US in 2010 after two years of legal proceedings and convicted on terrorism charges a year later.
Bout was sentenced to 25 years in prison. Now 55, he was not due to be released until August 2029, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons website.
“They will try to put me away for life,” Bout told The New Yorker before his sentencing. “But I will return to Russia. I don’t know when. But I’m still young.”
This is an updated version of a story first published on July 28, 2022.