WNBA star Brittney Griner is now free, but her liberation came at the cost of unleashing a notorious Russian arms dealer named Viktor Bout, who had been penned up in a federal penitentiary in Illinois.
An allegedly ruthless and shrewd weapons merchant, Bout’s ferociousness in the black market arena across Eastern Europe into Africa and the Middle East earned him monikers such as the “Merchant of Death” and “Sanctions Buster” and purportedly inspired the Nicolas Cage film Lord of War.
“After months of being unjustly detained in Russia, held under intolerable circumstances, Brittney will soon be back in the arms of her loved ones, and she should have been there all along,” President Joe Biden announced Thursday morning.
Griner had been in Russian custody after authorities discovered cannabis oil vape cartridges in her luggage back in February. The women’s basketball star was then sentenced to over nine years behind bars back in August for drug-related charges. The Biden administration had been negotiating her release for months.
Biden did not mention Bout, who was the key in the one-for-one prisoner swap announced Thursday. The deal also did not appear to extend to U.S. Marine veteran Paul Whelan, whom the Biden administration sought to free alongside Griner during the earlier deliberations over the Bout deal.
Kremlin officials long had their sights on procuring Bout’s release. A request for extradition ultimately sealed his demise while he was in Thailand back in 2008. Authorities apprehended him upon the request of the United States.
He subsequently stood trial in the U.S. on charges of conspiring to kill Americans, distributing anti-aircraft missiles, and aiding designated terrorist organizations. Ultimately, he was sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2012. An appeals court later upheld his conviction.
“Viktor Bout has been international arms trafficking enemy No. 1 for many years, arming some of the most violent conflicts around the globe,” Preet Bharara, the then U.S. attorney in Manhattan who prosecuted the charges against Bout, explained around the time of that 2012 trial, per CNN.
Two notable groups he was suspected of arming included the Taliban and al Qaeda, according to a press release about his arrest. The so-called “Merchant of Death” has vehemently rejected those and other allegations against him.
Much of Bout’s early days are shrouded in secrecy. But experts believe he got his start in the Soviet Armed Forces sometime before its collapse and was discharged around the time of its fall. Bout also worked as a translator and held the rank of lieutenant during his time in the military, according to his website.
Fluent in at least six languages, including Arabic, English, French, Portuguese, Persian, and Russian, Bout claims he worked as an officer for the military in Mozambique, but others claimed it was Angola, CNN reported.
As the USSR crumbled, Bout opened his air transport business, in which he delivered people and goods on behalf of foreign governments. U.S. officials allege that he moved weapons into conflict zones across the globe, including in bloody hot spots such as Sierra Leone and Afghanistan.
During this time, he quickly earned a reputation among customers for being able to move product into war-torn parts of Africa in violation of U.N. embargoes, according to the Economist.
“Victor Bout is reported to be the largest arms dealer in the world for more than 10 years now; however, nobody during all of these years was able to show evidence to support this allegation or to bring charges against Victor,” his website says.
The Kremlin sees Bout as “really important for military intelligence,” Russian journalist Andrei Soldatov said, per the Washington Post.