"She’s on her way home after months of being unjustly detained in Russia, held in intolerable circumstances." So President Joe Biden announced today from the Roosevelt Room of the White House, alerting the press to the news that Brittney Griner has finally been released from a Mordavian penal colony. Biden spoke next to Cherelle Griner, the American WNBA basketball player's visibly affected wife.
Following months of intense negotiations, the United States managed to secure Briner's freedom in a one-to-one swap for Viktor Bout, a notorious Russian arms dealer. Not included in the deal was another American prisoner of the Kremlin, Paul Whelan, who had been rumored to have been included in the high-profile negotiations over Griner.
Whelan, a former U.S. Marine and Michigan police officer, was arrested in Russia in December 2018 on espionage charges, which he denied; he was sentenced to 16 years in June 2020. Griner, an Olympic gold medalist, was detained in February at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport, exactly one week before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, on charges that she was trafficking cannabis oil — a banned substance in Russia — inside vape canisters. She pleaded guilty on July 7 and was sentenced to 9 years in prison.
Few U.S. officials take the Russian prosecutors' allegations at face value; the prevailing view is that both Whelan and Griner were snatched as hostages for exactly the kind of swap now under consideration, or as bargaining chips for lifting U.S. sanctions on Russia. "The Russian security services watched Griner closely and knew they could compromise her," a former U.S. intelligence officer told Yahoo News earlier this year. "She's a Black gay woman who could be portrayed as carrying drugs, and they waited until she departed. This was not legitimate law enforcement but cynical power games by the Kremlin." John Sipher, the former deputy head of "Russia House" at the CIA, said Whelan would have been unlikely to be recruited by any U.S. intelligence service owing to his compromised history: He was given a bad-conduct discharge from the Marine Corps after being court-martialed on larceny-related offenses in 2008.
Even by the Kremlin’s suspect characterization of Whelan and Griner, the allegations against Bout are far worse.
“In the late 1990s,” Jonathan Winer, a senior official in the State Department during the Clinton administration who tracked Bout’s movements, told Yahoo News, “Bout was the No. 2 target for the United States, after Osama bin Laden.” In fact, the infamous arms dealer, widely known as the “merchant of death,” has even been accused of arming al-Qaida.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union until his capture in a 2008 Drug Enforcement Administration sting operation in Bangkok, Bout supplied a rogue's gallery of governments and militias with guns, ammunition and aircraft. Nicolas Cage played a thinly veiled version of him in the 2005 film "Lord of War," although the real-life version's antics were more cinematically uncanny. Even Bout's aliases — "Viktor Budd," "Viktor Butt" and, simply, "Boris" — might have stretched credulity for a Bond villain.
Bout was chummy with a succession of African dictators, including Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi, Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko and Liberia’s Charles Taylor, the latter of whom paid him in conflict diamonds and whose child soldiers operated the antique Antonov cargo planes that Bout sold him. Warlord Sam “Mosquito” Bockarie committed crimes against humanity in Sierra Leone with Bout-proffered weapons. Some of these clients would object to Bout’s apparent racism and peremptory behavior: a pushy Russian in the midst of anticolonial (or postcolonial) leaders. But that hardly affected his bottom line or their willingness to enrich it.
The Tajikistan-born weapons merchant could play both sides of any war to his advantage. He equipped the Taliban with an air force before 9/11 and also sent weapons to their mortal enemy, Ahmad Shah Massoud, the commander of the Northern Alliance and onetime Afghan defense minister, with whom he liked to hunt the finely horned Marco Polo sheep of the Pamir Mountains. Both the Taliban and Massoud evidently knew their broker was double-dealing, but they put up with it because they had no choice, as one Bout associate later recounted to his biographers: "No one else would deliver the packages."
Astonishingly, even after being hunted by the U.S. government for years, Bout’s flagship company Irbis (“snow leopard” in Russian) even secretly acted as a private airlift courier for supplies intended for the U.S. military and contractors in occupied Iraq in 2004.
For all Bout’s blood-boltered infamy, some former national security officials think the Biden administration made the right call. “It’s a trade that has to be made, despite all the pitfalls,” according to Marc Polymeropoulos, who oversaw the CIA’s clandestine operations in Europe and Eurasia. “The pressure from the families on the White House is immense.” Polymeropoulos acknowledged that the trade would amount to “rewarding terrible Russian behavior” — equating an international arms trafficker with Whelan and Griner — but that the cost would be worth it. “Make no mistake, the Americans have no hope of release save for this swap. Also, let’s not forget that the Israelis have for decades swapped Palestinian terrorists for their imprisoned soldiers, and sometimes just their remains.”
Sipher agrees. “First, it’s a hard policy call, and I’m glad that Americans that were wrongly held as hostages will be freed. I understand why an American president makes such a deal. However, we should admit that we played Vladimir Putin’s game. He got what he wanted in his typical bullying manner. He knows he can push the West around and will do it until he is stopped.”
The U.S. sanctioned Bout in 2004 due to his gunrunning to Liberia; a year later, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control sanctioned four of his associates and 30 of his companies.
According to the 2008 sealed indictment against Bout, filed in the Southern District of New York, he agreed to provide advanced weapons systems to FARC, the Colombian terrorist organization, knowing that they would be used to target Americans and U.S. military personnel.
The Russian “assembled a fleet of cargo airplanes capable of transporting weapons and military equipment to various parts of the world, including Africa, South America and the Middle East,” the indictment read. Everything from AK-47s to attack helicopters wound up in the holds of Bout’s cargo planes, of which there were scores, under different national flaggings. He maintained the largest private fleet of post-Soviet cargo aircraft in the world at one point, administering it under a veneer of legitimacy by transporting food, medicine and other licit goods along with lethal contraband.
Bout was found guilty in 2011 on all four counts of the indictment: conspiracy to kill U.S. nationals, conspiracy to kill officers and employees of the U.S., conspiracy to acquire and use antiaircraft missiles, and conspiracy to provide material support or resources to a terrorist organization. He is now in the 10th year of a 25-year sentence.
Peter Hain, the former minister of state for Africa at the British Foreign Office, told the London Sunday Telegraph in 2002 that Bout was “supplying the Taliban and al-Qaida,” an allegation that Bout always denied, portraying himself as an honest businessman toting innocent wares such as textiles and furniture to places like Afghanistan. (It was Hain who coined Bout’s unshakable moniker, the “merchant of death.”)
Bout has for years also loudly denied any connection to the Russian government or its military intelligence service, still known by its Soviet-era acronym, the GRU.
However, in "Merchant of Death: Money, Guns, Planes, and the Man Who Makes War Possibile," a 2007 chronicle of Bout's malign activities, authors Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun quote one of his associates: "The GRU gave him three airplanes to start the business. The planes, countless numbers of them, were sitting there doing nothing. They decided, let's make this commercial. They gave Viktor the aircraft and in exchange collected a part of the charter money. It was a setup from the beginning." An unnamed analyst who worked with British intelligence also told the authors that MI6, the U.K.'s foreign intelligence service, "never had any doubt Bout was GRU material."
U.N. officials placed Bout's earlier career as that of an interpreter for Russian peacekeepers in Angola; he had trained at the Soviet Military Institute of Foreign Languages in Moscow, a favored stalking ground for GRU recruitment. Military translators are often GRU officers stationed under diplomatic cover owing to the spy service’s polyglot job requirement. Bout has said he speaks six languages. His bodyguards in his heyday were also reportedly all veterans from GRU Spetsnaz, or special forces.
Russia’s military intelligence agency has come under international scrutiny in the last several years, particularly after U.S. special counsel Robert Mueller concluded that a team of now-indicted GRU officers in Moscow were responsible for the hack-and-leak operation against the Democratic Party email servers in 2016, with the express intent of influencing the outcome of that year’s presidential contest.
GRU operatives have been busy outside the digital domain too.
Operatives attached to an elite assassination-and-sabotage cell known as Unit 29155 were sent to Salisbury, England, in 2018 to poison a GRU defector, Sergei Skripal, along with his daughter, Yulia, with a Russian-manufactured nerve agent.
Unit 29155 has also lately been linked to a string of earlier mysterious poisonings over the last decade, including that of another arms dealer, the Bulgarian Emilian Gebrev, who succumbed to Skripal-like symptoms in 2015 along with his son and his factory manager near his office in central Sofia. A series of explosions of factories and depots elsewhere in Bulgaria and also the Czech Republic, both of them NATO and EU member states, have been attributed to Unit 29155 operatives, leading to expulsions of Russian intelligence officers from embassies in both countries. Tellingly, these sites are believed to have contained Soviet-era ammunition bound for Ukraine.
Given the unprecedented access Bout had to surplus weapons and ammunition stocks, not to mention the enormous Antonov freighters scattered like metal carcasses across airfields of the fallen Soviet empire, it beggars belief that he was not in some way linked to Russian intelligence.
That would certainly account for why Vladimir Putin’s regime has so desperately sought for his repatriation to Russia and why the U.S. side apparently believes Bout would be a tempting trade amid caustic tensions between the two countries. The Kremlin, said Winer, the former State Department official, “moved heaven and earth” to first prevent Bout’s extradition to the U.S. from Thailand and then to secure his release from prison. The Russian Foreign Ministry has classed him as a political prisoner and, for more than a decade after his capture, serially raised his release with Washington in some kind of exchange. “The big question was whether he was basically state-sponsored or a rogue operator whom the Russian government found useful,” Winer told Yahoo News. “Was he an agent of the GRU when we caught him?”
Given Bout’s conviction in a U.S. court for aiding and abetting FARC, it’s a slightly awkward question for the Biden administration, now facing a mounting chorus to label Russia itself a state sponsor of terrorism. On Thursday, the Senate unanimously adopted a nonbinding resolution urging Secretary of State Antony Blinken to designate Moscow as such.
The text of the resolution not only cites Russian military atrocities against civilians in Chechnya, Georgia, Syria and Ukraine but also names the Wagner Group, a U.S. sanctioned Russian mercenary outfit. Financed by the U.S.- and EU-sanctioned oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin — a catering magnate and architect of the St. Petersburg "troll farm" implicated by Mueller in the 2016 U.S. election interference scheme — the Wagner Group has committed "serious human rights abuses in Ukraine, Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic, Sudan and Mozambique," according to the European Union. The allegations include torture and extrajudicial killings. The Senate also accuses the group of having tried to assassinate Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at the start of Russia's invasion in February.
The Treasury Department sanctioned the Wagner Group as a "Russian Ministry of Defense proxy force." The mercenaries maintain a camp in the Russian region of Krasnodar, right next door to a well-guarded training facility for GRU Spetsnaz, of which Wagner's leader, Dmitry Utkin, was once a brigade commander. According to Polymeropoulos, the former CIA officer, "there was never any doubt that Wagner functions as an arm of the GRU."
Might the same be said of the man now sitting in a medium-security penitentiary in Marion, Ill., awaiting his plane back to Moscow?
"They will try to lock me up for life," the then-45-year-old Bout told the New Yorker before his sentencing. "But I'll get back to Russia. I don't know when. But I'm still young. Your empire will collapse and I'll get out of here."