Victor Bout could play a key role in Britney Griner’s release from the WNBA

Viktor Bout has long been a shadowy figure living in spy novels, a convicted arms dealer who commanded billions in arms supply operations to notorious dictators, drug lords and warring armies, and sometimes to each other.

Bout, a mustachioed Russian citizen and former Soviet Army officer, was an equal opportunity smuggler whose shipments are said to be responsible for the deaths of thousands of Africans, Afghans and others.

And in the years before his arrest and incarceration in 2008, first in Thailand and then in the United States, the “dealer of death” – a nickname given to him three decades ago by a British MP – is believed to have become part of the politics of Russian President Vladimir Putin. inner circle.

Today, his possible release from US custody is in the spotlight. potentially risky trade with Moscow release WNBA star Britney Griner and another US citizen whom Washington considers illegally detained in Russia.

Secretary of State Anthony J. Blinken announced Wednesday that his government has held high-priority talks to release Griner and Paul Whelana former US Marine arrested in Moscow and convicted on dubious espionage charges in 2018.

“A few weeks ago, we submitted a substantial proposal to facilitate their release,” Blinken told reporters. “Our governments have repeatedly and directly communicated this proposal.”

Although Blinken did not publicly discuss the details of the offer, it was widely reported for several weeks that Bout was first on Moscow’s wish list for the exchange.

Blinken said he would discuss the exchange in a telephone conversation with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov. The call took place on Friday and marked the highest level of communication between the governments of the two countries since the Kremlin invaded Ukraine on February 2. 24, unleashing a brutal war against a neighboring former Soviet republic that claimed tens of thousands of lives.

However, Lavrov shows no signs of hope, saying he will accept the US offer “time permitting,” which officials in Washington see as a ploy to embarrass the Biden administration and use what Russia has and wants. USA. The administration is seeking to isolate Russia diplomatically and economically as punishment for its war with Ukraine, but Russian officials are hoping to score points by demonstrating that US officials should engage with them.

After years of wandering the world as arguably the world’s biggest arms dealer, Bout finally fell into the trap of a US government sting operation in 2008. Booth thought he was meeting in Bangkok with members of a left-wing Colombian guerrilla organization, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. or FARC to sell them helicopters and rocket launchers. But undercover DEA agents posed as guerrillas, tricking Bout, who was eventually arrested.

He was eventually extradited to the US, prosecuted, convicted in 2011, and sentenced to 25 years in prison for conspiring to kill Americans, among other crimes. He was placed in a maximum security federal prison in Illinois.

Booth has always maintained that he is just a businessman. Among his clients, according to the US Attorney’s Office, were dictators such as the late Muammar Gaddafi of Libya and Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia convicted in The Hague in 2012 of war crimes, including murder and rape. Other clients included the Afghanistan Northern Alliance, which fought the Taliban in the late 1990s. He later did business with the Taliban.

WNBA star Brittney Griner in a courtroom in Moscow ahead of a hearing earlier this week.

WNBA star Brittney Griner in a courtroom in Moscow ahead of a hearing earlier this week.

(Alexander Zemlyanichenko/Associated Press)

BUT 2002 profile Bout was quoted in the Los Angeles Times by a former US official as calling him the “Donald Trump or Bill Gates” of the arms trade.

Stephen Brown, a former Times reporter who was part of the team that wrote and published the story, said the Russian citizen has succeeded where no one else has, picking up the pieces of the collapsed Soviet Union, buying arms from many Eastern European countries that are no longer exclusively devoted to Moscow and then turning it into big business. Booth made billions of dollars from it.

Booth has amassed a fleet of about 60 cargo planes based on airfields from the Persian Gulf to Europe and Texas, Brown said, fanning the flames of civil wars, especially in Africa.

“They flew in detours, dropping pencils or blood diamonds, then picking up and dropping children’s toys, then picking up a shipment of weapons and flying to any number of warring states,” said Brown, who co-wrote with Douglas. Farah’s 2007 book, Death Dealer: Money, Guns, Aircraft, and the Man Who Makes War Possible, is one of the first written about Bout.

Now the question for Blinken and the Biden administration is how much of a public relations blow they can take by releasing someone with a Bout reputation. This would not be the first time the US has made a prisoner exchange with an adversary — almost every administration in recent history has faced a similar test. But few of those freed are as infamous as Booth, who reputedly has such blood on his hands.

“It’s always a balance that you have to find … a factor in how you’re going to move forward in these negotiations,” National Security Council spokesman John F. Kirby told CNN this week.

The government must weigh the risks to national security when releasing a person charged with terrorism or a criminal from custody; the likelihood of that person turning around and attacking the US or its allies, and whether trade would be an incentive for other attackers to take Americans hostage.

On the other hand, humanitarian concerns, including the conditions in which Americans are being held and treated, and the possibility of him or her being used as a political pawn.

The pressure to release Griner—a star athlete and lesbian of color—was intense. Griner was arrested at a Moscow airport and charged with transporting cannabis oil in her luggage is a product decriminalized in many US states.

Greener pleaded guilty and she’s on trial. Her Russian lawyers say it’s unlikely that Moscow will even consider a swap until the lawsuit is over.

Michael McFaul, who was U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014 and now works at Stanford University, said he favored releasing Bout but would add at least one more U.S. citizen to the deal: Mark Vogel, a teacher sentenced to 14 years in prison. allegedly for marijuana smuggling.

“I applaud the efforts of @SecBlinken and @StateDept to bring Britney Griner and Paul Whelan home, even if it means handing over Victor Bout,” McFaul tweeted, later correcting Griner’s misspelled name. “Support the trade. I just hope they put Mark Vogel in the deal.”

“Booth is a real criminal,” McFaul said. “Have [is] 3 innocent Americans should be freed.”

Brown, the writer, agreed.

“I’m not a supporter of letting this guy go, but there is a story when the goals converge, they do it,” he said.

More recently, in April, another former US Marine, Trevor Reidwas released from a Russian prison in exchange for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot who served 11 years of a 20-year federal sentence for conspiring to smuggle cocaine into the US. Reid was condemned for what US diplomats called “ludicrous”. collection three years ago.