Bout, dubbed the “Merchant of Death” who provided arms for some of the world’s worst conflicts, was seen in Russia as unjustly imprisoned after an overly aggressive U.S. sting operation.
The Russian state media hailed his release, carrying the footage of him talking to his family from a private jet following a swap at Abu Dhabi’s airport and then embracing his wife and his mother on a snowy tarmac in Moscow.
Speaking in an interview for RT channel with Maria Butina, who also served 18 months in a U.S. prison after being convicted of acting as an unregistered foreign agent in the United States, Bout said he was still struggling to control his emotions after his imprisonment.
He charged that the West’s long-held objective was to destroy Russia.
“The West believes that it has failed to finish us off when the Soviet Union began to collapse,” Bout said. “And our efforts to live independently, be an independent power is a shock to them.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that the swap was agreed between Russian and U.S. intelligence agencies, and that contacts were held exclusively to hammer out its specifics.
“It has no impact on the overall state of bilateral ties that looks sad,” Peskov said in televised remarks.
Despite negotiating the swap for Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and the most high-profile American jailed abroad, the U.S. failed to win freedom for another American, Paul Whelan. Whelan, a Michigan corporate security executive, has been imprisoned in Russia since December 2018 on espionage charges that his family and the U.S. government have said are baseless.
U.S. officials said they did not see an immediate path to bringing about Whelan’s release, saying Russia has treated his case differently because of the “sham espionage” charges against him. Still, they said they believe communication channels with the Russians remain open for negotiations about his freedom.
Peskov said that “special services may continue their work if necessary,” and also noted the role of the UAE and Saudi Arabia in helping broker the swap.