Shadowy arms dealer Viktor Bout may be key to Russia's release of WNBA star Brittney Griner

Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer once labeled the "Merchant of Death," is escorted to a courtroom in Bangkok in 2010.
Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer once labeled the "Merchant of Death," is escorted to a courtroom in Bangkok in 2010. (Apichart Weerawong / Associated Press)
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Viktor Bout has long been the type of shadowy figure who inhabits spy novels, a convicted arms dealer who commanded a billion-dollar operation of aircraft fleets to supply weapons to notorious dictators, drug lords and armies fighting wars — and sometimes one another.

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

And in the years before his 2008 arrest and imprisonment, first in Thailand and later the U.S., the "Merchant of Death" — a moniker he was given three decades ago by a British lawmaker — is believed to have become part of Russian President Vladimir Putin's inner circle.

Today, his possible release from U.S. custody is at the center of a potentially risky trade with Moscow to free WNBA star Brittney Griner and another U.S. citizen, both of whom Washington considers to be unlawfully detained in Russia.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken announced Wednesday that his government has had top-priority negotiations to release Griner and Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine arrested in Moscow and convicted on questionable espionage charges 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 that proposal."

While Blinken publicly would not discuss details of the offer, it has been widely reported for weeks that Bout was at the top of Moscow's wish list for a trade.

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

Lavrov is not giving signs of hope, however, saying he would entertain the U.S. offer "as time permits," in what officials in Washington see as a ploy to embarrass the Biden administration and to leverage what Russia has and the U.S. wants. The administration seeks to isolate Russia diplomatically and economically as punishment for the war on Ukraine, but Russian officials hope to score points by showing that U.S. officials must engage with them.

After many years trotting the globe as arguably the world's biggest arms trafficker, Bout was finally snared in a U.S. government sting operation in 2008. Bout thought he was meeting in Bangkok with representatives of the leftist Colombian guerrilla organization, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, to sell them helicopters and rocket launchers. But undercover Drug Enforcement Administration agents were posing as guerrillas, tricking Bout, who was finally arrested.

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

Bout always maintained that he was merely a businessman. His clients, according to U.S. prosecutors, included dictators such as the late Moammar Kadafi of Libya and Charles Taylor, the former Liberian president convicted at The Hague in 2012 of war crimes including murder and rape. Other clients included Afghanistan's Northern Alliance, which battled the Taliban in the late 1990s. Later, he did business with the Taliban.

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)

A 2002 profile of Bout in the Los Angeles Times quoted a former U.S. official describing him 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 that story, said the Russian national succeeded where no one else did by picking up the pieces of a collapsed Soviet Union, sourcing weapons from numerous Eastern European nations no longer exclusively loyal to Moscow, and then parlaying 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 on circuitous routes, drop off pencils or blood diamonds, then pick up and drop off children's toys, then pick up an arms shipment and fly to any number of states at war," 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 earliest written on Bout.

The question now for Blinken and the Biden administration is how big of a public relations hit they would sustain upon releasing someone of Bout's reputation. It would not be the first time the U.S. has made a prisoner trade with an adversary — almost all administrations in recent history have faced a similar test. But few of those released are as infamous as Bout with, reputedly, such blood on their hands.

"It's always a balance that you have to strike ... a factor in how you consider you're going to move forward with a given negotiation," John F. Kirby, a National Security Council spokesman, said on CNN this week.

The government has to weigh the national security risks in releasing an accused terrorist or criminal from its custody; the likelihood of that person turning around and attacking the U.S. or its allies, and whether the trade provides incentive to other bad actors to take Americans hostage.

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

Pressure for the release of Griner — a star athlete and lesbian woman of color — has been 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 U.S. states.

Griner has pleaded guilty, and her trial is underway. Her Russian lawyers say it is not likely that Moscow would even consider a swap until the trial is over.

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

"I applaud @SecBlinken & @StateDept efforts to bring Britney Griner and Paul Whelan home even if it means handing over Viktor Bout," 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 [is] worth freeing 3 innocent Americans."

Braun, the writer, agreed.

"I'm no fan of letting this guy go, but there is a history that when agendas converge, they do it," he said.

As recently as April, another former U.S. Marine, Trevor Reed, was freed from a Russian prison in a trade for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot who had served 11 years of a 20-year federal sentence for conspiring to smuggle cocaine into the U.S. Reed had been convicted of what U.S. diplomats described as "laughable" charges three years ago.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.