Viktor Bout (55) was sentenced to 25 years in prison in the USA, but is now back in Russia. He was considered the world’s most notorious arms dealer – and is said to have had a picture of Vladimir Putin (70) in his cell.
Bout was nicknamed “the merchant of death”. He was one of the world’s most wanted men before he walked into a trap and was arrested in 2008. In 2012 he was sentenced to 25 years in prison in the United States.
Now he is released – in exchange for American basketball star and Olympic winner Brittney Grinerwho was sentenced to nine years in prison for violating Russia’s drug laws.
The actual prisoner exchange took place at Abu Dhabi airport on Thursday.
BBC calls Bout “one of the world’s most notorious arms dealers”, and Reuters states that for almost two decades he was “the world’s most notorious arms dealer”. He sold weapons to rogue states, rebel groups and warlords in Africa, Asia and South America.
– It may seem distasteful to us, but that is the policy, says professor emeritus Kristian Gerner at Lund University to VG.
He is a Russia expert and believes that both the US and Russia saw this as a win-win situation.
– She received an unreasonable punishment, and it sounds like a prepared trade on the Russian side. But the Americans agreed that “we’ll have to go along with it”.
– What danger does Viktor Bout pose now?
– I think the Americans no longer see him as a threat. They consider that he can do no more mischief than he has already done. At the same time, they get an American citizen released.
The arms dealer’s life was so spectacular that it inspired a 2005 Hollywood film, Lord of War, starring Nicolas Cage as arms dealer Yuri Orlov, who buys cheap weapons from the former Soviet states and sells them at high prices to terrorist groups and war-torn regimes areas.
Viktor Bout himself was born in one of these Soviet states, Tajikistan, in 1967, when it was part of the Soviet Union. According to South African intelligence, he is ethnically Ukrainian, but became a Russian citizen after the collapse of the Soviet state in 1991.
After reading a report on Bout in 2003, Peter Hain of the British Foreign Office said that Bout was “the leading trafficker in death, controlling aircraft and arms trade routes from Eastern Europe (…) to Liberia and Angola”.
– Viktor Bout has also been accused of having supplied weapons to al-Qaeda, the Taliban and the rebels in Rwanda, writes the New York Times on Thursday.
Tass has posted this video of the prisoner exchange, which took place at Abu Dhabi airport:
On social media, there are different reactions to the fact that Bout is now a free man – after nearly 15 years in prison.
The former CIA top John Sipher writes that Brittney Griner was in practice a hostage that the Russian authorities used to get a prisoner exchange:
At the same time that the basketball star Griner and her family can now rejoice that she is a free woman, hope has faded for the American convicted spy Paul Whelan, who many thought would be part of the exchange agreement. He was arrested in 2018 and received 16 years in prison.
The BBC’s Russia veteran Steve Rosenberg puts it this way on Twitter:
How Viktor Bout was finally stopped? In 2008, the Americans laid a trap for him. Thus he was tricked from his safe place of residence in Moscow to Bangkok, where he was arrested by Thai police.
American agents posed as members of the Colombian Farc guerrillas and said the missiles they wanted to buy would be used to kill American pilots.
– We have the same enemy, Bout is said to have replied.
The Russian has always claimed that he is innocent, that he was involved in transport and that he did not know what was in the cargo.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, he came across four Russian-built transport planes. It gave him the opportunity to start his lucrative and shady business. The transport planes were initially military, but he managed to re-register them as civilians.
After a two-year diplomatic tug-of-war, Bout was – to Russian protests – extradited from Thailand to the United States in 2010.
– Bout was quite certainly a GRU agent, says Russia expert Mark Galeotti to Reuters.
GRU is the military spy service in Russia.
– His case has been important for the Russian intelligence services, which are keen to show that they will not leave their own in the dark, says Galeotti.
Picture of Putin
According to Christopher Miller, a journalist who has corresponded with neo-Nazis imprisoned with Bout in Illinois, the former arms dealer had a picture of Russian President Vladimir Putin in his cell – and said that Ukraine should not exist as a state, writes Reuters.
The release of Viktor Bout also receives a lot of attention in the Russian media. The Russian Foreign Ministry claims that the prisoner swap was successful after a long dialogue with the Americans. Rossiya-24 news channel shows pictures of Bout on the flight home to Vnukovo airport in Moscow. On the plane, he talks to his family on the phone.
– Everything is fine, he tells them.
It is stated that the images come from the FSB intelligence service.
– We have worked for this for 13 years, says Russia’s human rights commissioner Tatjana Moskalkova to Rossija-24.