Yesterday, the most dangerous and notorious illegal arms dealer on the planet, Viktor Bout was released from a US Federal prison in exchange for WNBA player Brittney Griner who was caught at a Moscow airport with vape cartridges containing Hashish on February 17th, 2022. Griner was in Russia to make money playing basketball in the off-season in Russia a professional team called UMMC Ekaterinburg. This team is owned by Iskander Makhmudov, an Uzbek-born oligarch sanctioned by the US for his ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Griner was not a tourist on a visit.
She was there on business, on the payroll of a Putin associate.
The Merchant of Death
Viktor Bout on the other hand, is truly one of the worst people on the planet. He built a massive illegal arms business around an air cargo service that made a direct contribution to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in Europe, Africa, the Mid-East, and South and Central America.
Bout himself is a man of considerable mystery. He is believed to be an ethnic Ukrainian born in Soviet Tajikistan in January 1967. He became a Russian citizen after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. He may have help passports in four different countries. Bout served as an officer in the Red Army and attended the Military Institute of Foreign Languages in Moscow. Bout’s website claims he served in the army as an interpreter and spoke 5 languages including Arabic, Farsi, English, and French. When he left the army at an unknown date, he was a Lt Colonel. Given the murk around his military career and the fact he attended the Institute of Foreign languages, Bout most likely became a member of the GRU or the Red Army’s Main Intelligence Directorate. The GRU enjoyed a well-earned reputation for ruthless brutality. Imagine the KGB without the class.
At the age of 25, the very young Colonel was now out of the army, the Soviet Union collapsed and he obtained $125,000 to buy 3 Russian military transport planes, Antanov AN-12s. These aircraft are propeller-driven and able to take off and land on unprepared runways. Bout eventually would have some 60 aircraft in his fleet.
Like the clandestine, CIA-run “Air America” operation which owned a large fleet of commercial aircraft in SE Asia in the 1960s til the mid 70’s, Bout mixed legitimate cargo operations with illegal trafficking in arms, diamonds, and gold. In Asia, Air America flew cargo that US military aircraft could not be seen moving around. It even ended up opium in and out of Laos to fund weapons purchases for the Laotian army. The CIA denies this of course, but it also denied having anything to with Air Asia which was the cutout company that ran Air America.
In every significant conflict from the 1990s to the mid-2000s, Bout’s planes could be spotted on dirt runways unloading arms to some faction. Sometimes it was to the government of these countries, and sometimes to rebel(often Marxist) factions trying to overthrow these governments. The guy was untouchable, and his customers seemed to be those that Russia either wanted to curry favor with or punish. Viktor Bout seemed to operate as an instrument of Russian foreign policy.
During the invasion of Iraq, Bout even managed to obtain contracts worth an estimated $60 million from the US government to fly supplies into Iraq and Afghanistan. The major market he turned to for his arms purchases was Ukraine, which was notoriously corrupt and had a huge stockpile of Soviet-made arms and equipment.
His close association with the Russian government became obvious in 1995, one of his aircraft bound for Jalalabad in Afghanistan was forced to land by the Taliban. The cargo of arms meant for the government in Kabul was seized and the crew of 7 held in custody. As Bout himself told the New York Times in a 2003 interview, he met with the Taliban several times accompanied by members of the Russian government to secure their release. These attempts were unsuccessful and the crew may have been forcibly freed from Taliban custody and extracted by the Russian military.
Bout was eventually arrested in Thailand in 2008 for conspiracy to kill Americans. Undercover agents posing as Marxist guerillas in Columbia wanted to purchase and have delivered shoulder-launched air-to-air missiles to shoot down US aircraft assisting the Columbian government. The US sought extradition to face charges and the Russian government exerted enormous pressure on Thailand to refuse. It took a year to get Bout to the US to face trial.
The Russian government went from decrying his arrest as illegal to claiming that it had nothing to hide and that Bout should have to answer all questions in a court of law. After he was convicted, Russia sanctioned every US Justice Department official involved in the case.
Bout was sentenced in 2011 to serve 25 years in a Federal penitentiary.
Russia considers Bout a political prisoner.
Russia’s Offer to Exchange Griner for Bout Was Almost Immediate
When Brittney Griner was arrested this year, the Russian government wasted no time in suggesting exchanging her for Bout. As related by the New York Times in a July 1, 2002 story and quoting Bout’s New York attorney, Steve Zissou, the Russian ambassador met with him in June and “..told him the release of Mr. Bout was a very high priority for the Russian government.”
It seems obvious that negotiations over the exchange of Griner for Bout began months ago and that the Biden Administration was under enormous pressure to make a deal for her release. In June, a large group of voter organizations representing women, people of color, and the LGBTQ communities sent Biden a letter urging him to make a deal for Griner’s release. These groups included the National Action Network, the National Organization for Women, the Human Rights Campaign, and the National Urban League.
Detractors are saying that US citizen Paul Whelan was the better candidate for release in any exchange. In June 2020, Whelan was convicted in a Russian court of espionage and sentenced to 16 years. Sgt Whelan was a Marine Reservist who was court-martialed in 2008 for multiple counts of larceny. He was given two months restriction, a bust to E4, and a Bad Conduct Discharge. Whelan was in Russia for the wedding of another former Marine. It is alleged that he had $80,000 in his possession that was temporarily confiscated by Russian authorities. He was arrested in his hotel room in Moscow shortly after being given a flash drive by a Russian “friend” that contained the names of Russian border guards. Whelan claims he thought the flash drive contained holiday pictures.
Whelan had told friends and family that he knew people in the Russian Security Service, the FSB. He was most likely set up by them as well. It’s an old KGB trick used to arrest US military officers visiting East Berlin during the Cold War. An East German strikes up a conversation with the US officer in a cafe or bar, offers him an American magazine or newspaper he has with him saying he is finished reading it, and KGB agents swoop in to arrest the officer as soon as he takes it from the stranger. The magazine contains several pages of “classified” material hidden in the pages. Another trick was to trail an American riding in a taxi with the passenger window down. A scooter bike pulls up next to the cab and the rider tosses a manilla envelope on the seat next to the American. Again, the KGB swoops in immediately and arrests the American in possession of classified information. During the Cold War, US military officers visiting the communist block were extensively briefed on how to avoid being entrapped this way. Keep the taxi windows rolled up, and accept nothing from a stranger on the street or in a restaurant, bar, or cafe. Assume your hotel room is bugged, and assume any female who approaches you in a friendly manner to be a Soviet agent. Depending on what you did in the military the risk of being scooped up was so high, some service members were forbidden from getting within 90 miles of the border of any communist country. This 90-mile limit would allow one to still visit Key West, Florida which is 90 miles from Cuba.
According to former National Security Advisor John Bolton, the Russians offered to exchange Whelan for Bout in 2018 and the Trump administration rejected it. Not because of who Whelan was, but because of who Viktor Bout is, as he said to the New York Post yesterday, “Obviously, there are legitimate exchanges of prisoners of war,” he said. “But this doesn’t even approximate that. The idea that somehow what Brittney Griner did — very foolishly, in my estimate — but that whatever she did compares to Viktor Bout is something that shows just how desperate the administration was to make this deal.”
Paul Whelan, did not have the political muscle behind his release that Brittany Griner did. President Biden wasn’t writing him letters of support and encouragement. Neither does Marc Fogel. Fogel was a history teacher at the Anglo-American School in Moscow and was arrested in August 2021, for entering Russia with medical marijuana prescribed to him to treat severe back pain. The Russian courts sentenced him to 14 years at hard labor, for “large-scale drugs smuggling”. He’s been in prison longer on almost the same charges as Griner.
Bolton has a point, prisoner exchanges need to be on a par level for good reasons. When CIA pilot Gary Powers was shot down flying a U-2 spy mission over the USSR in 1960, he was exchanged two years later for captured KGB Colonel Rudolph Abel. Both were spies, both were representing their governments. Neither were private citizens who committed minor drug offenses.
The fact that Russia previously tried to swap Whelan for Bout, suggests that Russia intended to keep arresting Americans until they found someone they could secure his release with, Neither Whelan nor Fogel was sufficient, Brittney Griner, because of her relative celebrity and the pressure of political groups was apparently enough. The pressure to make that exchange was mostly brought on President Biden by American political groups purporting to represent oppressed minorities. They seem unconcerned that most of the hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children killed by the weapons that Viktor Bout sold all over the planet were black, brown, and Hispanic.
The release of Griner who was in possession of less than a gram of hash for Bout, the “Merchant of Death” whose actions have led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people is an encouragement for countries like North Korea, China, Russia, and other belligerent countries to scoop up any American they can get their hands on to exchange for terrorists we have arrested or war criminals or other illegal arms traffickers in our prisons. A future president may not agree to make such a lop-sided deal in the future, but that will be no comfort for any American rotting in a foreign prison on some minor charge.