Convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout, known as the “Merchant of Death,” was released by the United States in exchange for the release of women’s basketball star Brittney Griner, who had been imprisoned in Russia since February.
For months, Russian official media has speculated that Bout, whose freedom the Kremlin has long desired, may be exchanged for Griner, who was sentenced to nine years in prison for possessing vape cartridges with cannabis oil.
There had been talk of a possible swap between Griner and U.S. Marine veteran Paul Whelan, who was sentenced to 16 years in a Russian prison on espionage allegations that he termed a setup and that the U.S. authorities denounced as phoney. However, the final agreement applied just to Griner.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken provided the public with its first look at the efforts being made to repatriate Griner and Whelan on July 27. Blinken stated that the United States has made a “significant proposal” to Russia in an effort to secure the return of Griner and Whelan.
After a week, Russian officials declared they were “ready to discuss” the possibility of a prisoner exchange. At the time, U.S. media reported that the offer on the table included a prospective prisoner swap for Bout, but officials from the Biden administration would to comment.
The Kremlin insisted that no agreement had been reached “yet,” and for months, there was no public update on the negotiations. U.S. officials have been “actively involved over these many months to try to move things along” in an effort “to get our troops home,” Blinken told CBS News‘ Margaret Brennan on “Face the Nation” last Sunday.
After being lured to Thailand as part of a Drug Enforcement Administration sting operation spanning three continents, Bout, a former Soviet military interpreter turned international arms dealer, has been incarcerated for over a decade.
In 2010, Michael Braun, the former chief of operations for the United States Drug Enforcement Administration, said on “60 Minutes” that in his opinion, “Viktor Bout is one of the most dangerous guys on the face of the Earth.”
According to a biography of him published in The New Yorker in 2012, Bout, the son of a bookkeeper and auto mechanic, was recruited into the Soviet Army at the age of 18. After two years in an infantry unit in western Ukraine, he applied to the Military Institute of Foreign Languages in Moscow and was accepted to study Portuguese there.
Despite claims to the contrary from his former business partner and a former CIA official, Bout told The New Yorker that he never operated as a spy. At the age of 28, he started hanging around in the cargo hangars at Sharjah International Airport in the United Arab Emirates and eventually launched his own cargo airline, Air Cess, using a small fleet of Russian planes to transport products to Africa and Afghanistan.
Bout continued to deliver more advanced weapons to both sides of deadly civil battles in the years that followed. Someone else would do it if I didn’t,” Bout told the New Yorker.
U.S. and British authorities had already begun keeping an eye on him by that point. British Foreign Office minister for Africa Peter Hain raised the alarm as more and more sophisticated weapons were used to target British troops in Africa.
“Warlords who violate international sanctions are prolonging the bloodshed in Sierra Leone and Angola, leading to the deaths and disfigurement of countless people.
By owning air companies that transport arms and other logistical support to rebels in Angola and Sierra Leone and remove the diamonds which pay for those arms, Viktor Bout is indeed the chief sanctions buster and is a merchant of death, aiding and abetting people who are turning their guns on British soldiers “Hain stated this in 2000 before the House of Commons.
According to “Operation Relentless: The Hunt for the Richest, Deadliest Criminal in History,” by Damien Lewis, the “Merchant of Death” title “had occurred to Hain spontaneously, as he’d read yet another intelligence briefing on Bout’s actions.” The press, “immediately struck a chord,” as the saying goes.
The U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control announced penalties against Bout and his enterprises, freezing their assets and barring them from making any transactions via American banks.
Due to the opaque nature of his operation, two of his businesses were engaged by the United States government to provide supplies to American troops in Iraq. In 2007, the DEA came up with a strategy to get Bout out of Russia with an irresistible arms trade.
The organisation dispatched a covert agent to negotiate a commercial transaction with one of Bout’s closest confidantes. This conversation paved the way for the DEA’s phoney arms buyers to meet with Bout’s accomplice on the island of Curacao, located a couple hundred miles off the coast of Colombia, while pretending to be officials of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
Andrew Smulian, a business partner of Bout’s, flew all the way to Moscow to offer the transaction to him in person. Two weeks later, in Copenhagen, Smulian met with the undercover agents and said that his business partner had approved of the plan.
A few weeks later, Bout thought he was going to Thailand to meet with FARC officials about sending what prosecutors called “an armoury of military-grade weapons” to strike American helicopters in Colombia.
Bout admitted that the weapons may be used to kill Americans at a meeting with DEA informants posing as FARC leaders in a Bangkok hotel conference room in March of 2008.
The meeting was overheard by Thai police and DEA operatives, who immediately entered the room and captured Bout. The match is finished, Bout declared. In 2010, after two years of legal proceedings, he was extradited to the United States, where he was tried and convicted on terrorism charges the following year.
The court imposed a 25-year prison term on Bout. In spite of the fact that he is already 55 years old, he was not scheduled for release from federal prison until August 2029. Before his sentencing, Bout told The New Yorker, “They will try to lock me away for life.”
“However, I plan on visiting Russia again. To be honest, I have no idea when that will be. However, I’m still a young man.” This revised version was originally printed on July 28, 2022.
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