Viktor Bout could be key to Brittney Griner’s exit from the WNBA

Viktor Bout has long been the type of dark character that inhabits spy novels, a convicted arms dealer who commanded a billion-dollar operation of aircraft fleets to supply arms to notorious dictators, drug lords and armies waging wars – and sometimes with each other.

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

And in the years leading up to his 2008 arrest and imprisonment, first in Thailand and then in the United States, the “merchant of death” – a nickname given to him three decades ago by a British lawmaker – would have become a part of the life of Russian President Vladimir Putin. inner circle.

Today, his possible release from US custody is at the center of a potentially risky trade with Moscow to release the WNBA star Britney Griner and another US citizen, both considered by Washington to be illegally detained in Russia.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken announced Wednesday that his government had prioritized negotiations to release Griner and Paul Whelana former US Marine arrested in Moscow and convicted of questionable espionage in 2018.

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

While Blinken would not publicly discuss the details of the offer, it has been widely reported for weeks that Bout has been high on Moscow’s wish list for a trade.

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

Lavrov gave no sign of hope, however, saying he would accept the U.S. offer “time permitting,” in what officials in Washington see as a ploy to embarrass the Biden administration and take advantage of what Russia has and US. The administration seeks to isolate Russia diplomatically and economically as punishment for the war on Ukraine, but Russian officials are hoping to score points by showing that U.S. officials need to engage with them.

After many years traveling the world as arguably the world’s biggest arms trafficker, Bout was finally ensnared in a US government sting operation in 2008. Bout thought he was meeting in Bangkok representatives of the left-wing Colombian guerrilla organization, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, to sell them helicopters and rocket launchers. But undercover Drug Enforcement Administration agents posed as guerrillas, tricking Bout, who was eventually arrested.

Eventually, he was extradited to the United States, prosecuted, convicted in 2011, and sentenced to 25 years in prison for conspiring to kill Americans, among other crimes. He was incarcerated in a medium-security federal prison in Illinois.

Bout always maintained that he was just a businessman. His clients, according to US prosecutors, included dictators like Libya’s late Moammar Gadafi and Charles Taylor, the former Liberian president convicted in The Hague in 2012 of war crimes including murder and rape. Other clients included the Afghan Northern Alliance, which fought the Taliban in the late 1990s. Later I did business with the Taliban.

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

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

(Alexander Zemlianichenko/Associated Press)

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

Stephen Braun, a former Times reporter who was part of the team that reported and wrote this story, said the Russian national succeeded where no one else had in picking up the pieces of a Soviet Union. collapsed, sourcing arms from many Eastern European countries. exclusively loyal to Moscow, and then turning that into big business. Bout made billions of dollars in the process.

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 fly circuitous routes, drop off crayons or blood diamonds, then pick up and drop off children’s toys, then pick up a shipment of weapons and fly to any number of warring states,” said Braun, who co-wrote with Douglas. Farah, the 2007 book “Merchant of Death: Money, Guns, Planes and the Man Who Makes War Possible”, one of the first written about Bout.

The question now for Blinken and the Biden administration is how big of a public relations hit they would experience by releasing someone of Bout’s reputation. It wouldn’t be the first time the United States has made a prisoner swap with an adversary — nearly every administration in recent history has faced a similar test. But few who have been freed are as infamous as Bout with, it seems, so much blood on their hands.

“It’s always a balance that you have to strike … a factor in how you think you’re going to move forward in any given negotiation,” John F. Kirby, spokesman for the National Security Council, said on CNN this week. .

The government must weigh the national security risks of releasing an accused terrorist or criminal from custody; the likelihood that this person will turn around and attack the United States or its allies, and whether the trade will incentivize other malicious actors to hold Americans hostage.

On the other side are the humanitarian concerns, including the conditions under which an American is detained and treated, and whether he could be used as a political pawn.

The push for the release of Griner — a star athlete and lesbian of color — has been intense. Griner was arrested at a Moscow airport and charged with transporting cannabis oil in his luggage – a product that has been decriminalized in many US states.

Griner pleaded guilty and his trial is ongoing. His Russian lawyers say Moscow is unlikely to even consider a swap before the trial is over.

Michael McFaul, who served as US ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014 and is now at Stanford University, said he favored Bout’s release but would add at least one more US citizen to the deal: Marc Fogel, a teacher sentenced to 14 years in prison. for allegedly smuggling marijuana.

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

“Bout is a real criminal,” McFaul said. “He h [is] it’s worth freeing 3 innocent Americans.

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.

As recently as April, another former US Marine, Trevor Roseauwas released from a Russian prison in an exchange with Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot who had served 11 years of a 20-year federal sentence for conspiracy to smuggle cocaine into the United States. Reed had been convicted of what US diplomats called “laughable”. charges three years ago.