It’s the most unequal swaps at the most unlikely of times, but perhaps the intense pressure of the moment is why swapping a USA basketball star for a Russian arms dealer ended happening now.
On the surface, Brittney Griner and Viktor’s fever accused of various ludicrous crimes. Griner was convicted in a Russian penal colony for possessing a gram of cannabis oil. Bout is arguably the most prolific arms dealer of the past decades, sparking conflicts in Africa and beyond – and more specifically convicted in US courts of attempted murder. America.
But circumstances and political pressure on both sides have reversed this imbalance. Griner has acquired an importance for the Americans – based on her claims of innocence and her blatant arrest of her as a geopolitical pawn on the eve of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – that has forced the Biden administration to begin negotiations with the Kremlin at the worst time in US-Russian relations since at least the end of the Cold War.
Bout’s overwhelming importance to Russia has always been the bigger puzzle. How can a man be so valuable to Moscow that they spend decades trying to free him to whatever degree they can, while also being just a pilot and innocent and pitiful global trader, as he claimed? Who is this guy to deny everything?
I interviewed Bout in 2009 after months of negotiations during his imprisonment in Bangkok. He is multilingual, talkative, charming, and can talk endlessly about the list of political figures with whom he has personal connections around the globe.
I’ve seen videos of Bout in the Congo and all over Africa, where he’s pretty close to the conflicts there. He was accused by many analysts and United Nations investigators of spreading small arms across that continent during the 90s and early 00s, which he denies. There are allegations that he even armed al Qaeda, which he also denies. There are very few things he is not accused of doing, and some things he does not deny. He becomes a boggart, and is the focus of a movie starring Nicolas Cage called “Lord of War”.
That’s the résumé: the reputation of a man known as the “Merchant of Death”. What he spent in prison for 14 years and extradited to the US, was a US Drug Enforcement Agency complication in which he was tricked into agreeing to supply weapons to US agents. United posing as Colombian terrorists – the weapon intended in killing Americans. It is strange that after all the crimes for which Bout is accused, the crime for which he is imprisoned is a conspiracy – a conspiracy, not an act.
Sure, he’s a pilot and a businessman. He is a military translator with a Soviet past. But there are allegations that he worked for Russian intelligence and became an asset to them in supplying weapons around the world to bolster Moscow’s geopolitical goals. It has also been suggested that he served alongside senior Russians currently close to President Vladimir Putin. This may explain the intensity with which Americans sought him out. He was never a nobody.
There has always been a curious mystery to Bout and his entourage. Yes, he is innocent, about everything, he would say. But yes, he’s had an interesting life. There’s always that wink you usually get when someone knows that there’s more to it than an openly told story.
The bigger surprise now is how this exchange happened during Russia’s invasion and brutality of Ukraine. It says two things: that Moscow and Washington can do business even if Russian bombs kill innocent Ukrainian civilians, and that the United States supplies Ukraine with weapons that are killing Russian soldiers, and that The nuclear powers can solve other thorny problems while the bullets are still in the air. This is a good thing for everyone on the planet. It means some cool heads prevail, and fundamental interests prevail.
It also shows some weakness on Putin’s part. At a time when he is flaunting nuclear weapons against the West, he is also agreeing to a high-level diplomatic deal to take back a figure of immense, complex importance to the West. Russia’s elite, intelligence community and national pride.
This is a man many ordinary Russians may have heard of, and he is certainly of mythological importance to the Russian elite. He is not someone Moscow would – to paraphrase the ugly slogan of the Russian invasion, in which hundreds of soldiers’ bodies are still scattered across the battlefield – “left behind”.
These are the people Putin wants to please right now. The deal could also be more self-interested: Many believe that when Bout served in Africa, he had close ties to members of the Russian elite now close to Putin (though Bout also did deny this). Is this why the US spends such time and money detaining him? Do they think he’ll come back? We may never know.
Yes, it was a victory for Putin, but a victory that came at the expense of exposing his weakness and the need to keep the military elite he trusted contented.
Correction: This story has been updated to correct the number of Bout in prison following the DEA injection campaign in 2008.