Viktor Bout may be key to release of WNBA’s Brittney Griner

Viktor Bout has long been the kind of shadowy character who inhabits spy novels, a convicted arms dealer who oversaw a multibillion-dollar operation of aircraft fleets to arm notorious dictators, drug lords, and armies that fought wars — and sometimes each other.

Bout, a mustachioed Russian national and former Soviet army officer, was an equal opportunity smuggler whose supplies are allegedly responsible for the deaths of thousands of Africans, Afghans and others.

And in the years before his arrest and imprisonment in 2008, first in Thailand and later in the US, the “dealer of death” – a nickname given to him by a British lawmaker three decades ago – is said to have been part of Russian President Vladimir Putin has become his inner circle.

Today, his possible release from US custody is at the center of a potentially risky deal with Moscow to free WNBA star Brittney Griner and another US citizen, both of whom Washington believes are being unlawfully held in Russia.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken announced Wednesday that his administration had high-priority negotiations to release Griner and Paul Whelan, a former US Marine arrested in Moscow in 2018 and convicted on questionable espionage charges.

“We put a significant proposal on the table weeks ago to facilitate their release,” Blinken told reporters. “Our governments have repeated and communicated this proposal directly.”

While Blinken declined to publicly discuss details of the deal, it has been widely reported for weeks that Bout was at the top of Moscow’s wish list for a deal.

Blinken said he would discuss the swap over the phone with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov. The call took place on Friday and marked high-level communications between the two countries’ governments since the Kremlin invaded Ukraine on February 24 and launched a brutal war against the neighboring former Soviet republic that has claimed tens of thousands of lives.

Lavrov, however, is showing no signs of hope and says he would consider the US offer “as time permits,” in what Washington officials see as a ploy to embarrass the Biden administration and take advantage of what Russia is saying has and what the US wants. The government is trying to diplomatically and economically isolate Russia as punishment for the war on Ukraine, but Russian officials are hoping to score points by showing US officials need to work with them.

After spending many years wandering the globe as arguably the world’s largest arms dealer, Bout finally got caught up in a US government covert operation in 2008. or FARC to sell them helicopters and rocket launchers. But undercover agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration posed as guerrillas and tricked Bout, who was eventually arrested.

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

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

(Alexander Zemlianichenko/Associated Press)

Eventually he was extradited to the United States, charged, convicted in 2011 and sentenced to 25 years in prison on charges including conspiracy to kill Americans. He was locked up in a medium-security federal prison in Illinois.

Bout always claimed he was just a businessman. According to US prosecutors, his clients included dictators such as the late Muammar Kadafi of Libya and Charles Taylor, the former Liberian president who was convicted in The Hague in 2012 of war crimes including murder and rape. Other clients included Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance, which fought the Taliban in the late 1990s. He later did business with the Taliban.

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

Stephen Braun, a former Times reporter who was part of the team that covered and wrote this story, said the Russian national succeeded where no one else could, picking up the pieces of a collapsed Soviet Union and not weapons more from numerous Eastern European nations drew exclusively from being loyal to Moscow and then turning that into big business. Bout made billions of dollars doing it.

Bout assembled a fleet of about 60 cargo planes based at airfields from the Persian Gulf to Europe and Texas, fanning the flames of civil wars, particularly in Africa, Braun said.

“They would take detours, drop off pencils or blood diamonds, pick up and drop off children’s toys, then pick up a shipment of weapons and fly to any number of states at war,” said Braun, who co-wrote Douglas’ Farah, the 2007 publication Book Merchant of Death: Money, Guns, Planes and the Man Who Makes War Possible, one of the earliest written about Bout.

The question for Blinken and the Biden administration now is how big a PR hit they would take if they released someone of Bout’s reputation. It wouldn’t be the first time the US engaged in a prison trade with an adversary – almost every government in recent history has been subjected to a similar test. But few of those released are as notorious as Bout with allegedly so much blood on their hands.

“There’s always a balance that has to be found … a factor in how you move forward with a particular negotiation,” John F. Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said on CNN this week.

The government must weigh national security risks when releasing an accused terrorist or criminal from custody; the likelihood of that person turning back and attacking the US or its allies; and whether the trade provides an incentive for other bad actors to hold Americans hostage.

On the other hand are the humanitarian concerns, including the conditions under which an American is being held and treated, and whether he or she could be used as a political pawn.

The pressure for the release of Griner – a top athlete and lesbian black woman – was intense. Griner was arrested at a Moscow airport and accused of carrying cannabis oil in her luggage – a product that has been decriminalized in many US states.

Griner has pleaded guilty and her trial is ongoing. Her Russian lawyers say Moscow is unlikely to even consider a swap until the end of the trial.

Michael McFaul, who served as US Ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014 and is now at Stanford University, said he supports Bout’s release but would include at least one other US citizen in the deal: Marc Fogel, one to Teacher sentenced to 14 years in prison for alleged marijuana smuggling.

“I applaud the efforts of @SecBlinken & @StateDept to bring Britney Griner and Paul Whelan home, even if it means extraditing Viktor Bout,” McFaul wrote on Twitter, later correcting his misspellings of Griner’s first name. “I support the exchange. I just hope they include Marc Fogel in the deal.”

“Bout is a real criminal,” McFaul said. “He [is] Freeing 3 innocent Americans is worth it.”

Braun, the writer, agreed.

“I’m not a fan of letting this guy go, but there’s a story that when agendas converge, they do,” he said.

Just in April, another former US Marine, Trevor Reed, was freed from a Russian prison in exchange for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot serving 11 years of a 20-year federal sentence for conspiring to smuggle cocaine into US Reed ​had been convicted three years ago on what US diplomats called “ridiculous” charges. Viktor Bout may be key to release of WNBA’s Brittney Griner

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