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The mustachioed Viktor Bout stands front and center surrounded by a large number of US Federal Agents. Image from YouTube and CBS News.
Just Say No
Kids, listen up. DO NOT attempt to smuggle drugs into foreign countries. Stupid actions will earn you stiff penalties, and Uncle Sam is not always going to be able to give you a “get out of jail free” card. This latest prisoner swap with Russia is the equivalent of trading Spicoli from “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” for Scarface. Not a good trade if you ask me, but believe it or not, no one asked me.
By now, we all probably know that Brittney Griner has safely touched down in the land of the free and the home of the brave, arriving at Kelly Field in San Antonio, Texas, Friday morning. I’m glad she’s back; I don’t want to see any Americans locked up in one of Putin’s prisons (Paul Whelan, we haven’t forgotten about you, brother). But she’s lucky. Damn lucky. And I hope she realizes it. And I hope she realizes the price we paid for her youthful indiscretion.
Too High a Price
So, who is this Russian Viktor Bout we’ve recently decided to set free? Was he hiding a few joints in his underwear when he touched down at JFK? Hell no. Bout is a big-time international arms dealer. He’s been suspected of supplying arms to both the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Last time I checked, thousands of Americans died fighting wars trying to wipe both groups off the face of the Earth. Both groups are still around doing their dirty work, by the way.
Lord of War
To fully understand what we’re dealing with here, please watch this clip from the 2005 film “Lord of War.” In it, Nicolas Cage plays an arms dealer based closely on Viktor Bout (pronounced “boot”). In this scene, Cage’s character is in US custody, and he calmly explains to the federal agent why he is about to be released from federal custody. It’s one of the most powerful scenes I’ve watched in a long time. Of course, Hollywood makes the US the bad guy, instead of Russia, whom Viktor Bout actually works for. While it is true that the US is the world’s largest arms dealer, that title comes with some caveats. US weaponry is mostly sold to our own allies like Japan, Taiwan, and our NATO allies in Europe, not to Marxist revolutionary groups trying to overthrow their governments. It also takes the approval of Congress for the US to sell the. US weapons are also far more expensive than Russian weapons. You can buy a Russian Mig-29 for less than $5 million, while you cannot buy a US made F-16 directly from the government. You would have to buy one from a NATO country and it will run you over $8 million if you can get them to part with one. Finally, Eastern Europe was awash in Soviet-made weaponry. Bout didn’t have to go to Russia for them, there were plenty in Ukraine and Bulgaria he could buy. Russia doesn’t disclose the number and cost of the weapons its sells to other countries, so estimates are just that, guesses.
The real-life Bout did end up being tried and convicted in a US court of law. His charges included conspiring to kill Americans. But, according to an article published in the New York Times (NYT), he sent a defiant message to the world through his lawyer before his 2011 conviction. The statement was brief and prophetic: “This is not the end.” Bout is now a free man after serving less than half his twenty-five-year sentence.
Mr. Bout was finally arrested after unknowingly trying to sell anti-aircraft weapons to DEA agents pretending to be arms buyers for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (aka FARC), a well-known terrorist organization. He was taken into custody in Thailand in 2008 (as shown in the top image above), but extradition to the United States (which was vigorously opposed by the Russians) took two and a half years. Once he got here, however, he received a speedy trial…three weeks in all.
Preet Bharara, the United States attorney in Manhattan in 2011, was responsible for Bout’s prosecution. He called him a “very dangerous man.” But there are a lot of those. Bout is dangerous on a global level. Mr. Bharara told the NYT at the time of Bout’s prosecution,
“As the evidence at trial showed, Viktor Bout was ready to sell a weapons arsenal that would be the envy of some small countries. He aimed to sell those weapons to terrorists for the purpose of killing Americans.”
Bout received the minimum mandatory sentence of 25 years when he could have been sentenced to life.
Almost immediately following Bout’s conviction and sentencing, there was talk of a potential prisoner swap. In July 2010, the US and Russia conducted a sizable prisoner swap where 10 Russian “sleeper” agents (among them the infamous Anna Chapman) were traded for individuals arrested in Russia under charges of spying for the US or the UK. As a result, there was widespread speculation in the Russian media that Bout would be traded for an American they were holding in captivity.
Official sources on both sides quickly threw cold water on the reports. A Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson said they had no such plan in the works, and an unnamed American law enforcement official called any claims of a swap “baseless.”
Denials came from the highest levels of government. A senior counterterrorism official in the Bush administration, Juan Zarate, was quoted in NYT as saying regarding Bout,
“He’s a singular international criminal who’s finally faced justice, and I don’t think the United States would see it as being in our interest or anyone else’s interest to have him go back to Russia and potentially go free.”
But one of the most dangerous arms dealers in the world, a man convicted of conspiring to kill Americans, is free. He is free because our leaders were weak and capitulated to the will of Putin. At this point, I can only wonder how many people will have to pay the ultimate price for Brittney Griner’s freedom.
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