Is the United States really ready to let the “Merchant of Death” out of prison?
Viktor Bout, one of the world’s most notorious arms dealers, could be the key to a possible deal with Moscow to win the freedom of basketball star Brittney Griner and another American, Paul Whelan, according to an exclusive CNN report.
A “substantial offer” was made to Moscow in June, according to three sources, and President Joe Biden personally signed off on it.
To put it mildly, this is a stunning development. The Kremlin has yet to respond. But if the swap goes ahead, it could transform perceptions of how the US deals with governments who detain its citizens overseas, making American travelers more tempting targets. It would also be an act of great humanity by Biden to bring Americans home from hellish Russian prisons.
This is one of those problems with no right answer that leaders face. Freeing a prisoner like Bout is a risk. He is not only close to Russian intelligence, but could pose a future threat – he was convicted in 2011 of conspiracy to kill Americans, among other charges. A high-profile swap like this might also send a message to hostile governments and bandits around the world that the US will cut deals to get people home.
Then there is the uncomfortable symbolism of equating these cases through an exchange. WNBA star Griner, who is on trial in Moscow, says she unintentionally took cannabis into Russia. Whelan was arrested in 2018 and accused of spying. Washington contends that neither case has any merit and is highly critical of what it sees as a politicized Russian justice system.
Bout, in contrast, is a notorious international criminal, though he maintains that he is innocent. Which helps explain why the Justice Department opposed the swap, according to the report by CNN’s Kylie Atwood, Evan Perez and Jennifer Hansler.
It’s hard not to see this as a potentially huge victory for Russia and President Vladimir Putin. An exchange could provide days of propaganda fuel for the Kremlin. Perhaps Bout could also be useful in procuring weapons for Russia to use in Ukraine.
Whatever the outcome, it’s clear that Moscow already saw both Griner and Whelan as bargaining chips even before any US swap proposal. Trevor Reed, another American who was freed in a Cold War-style prisoner swap in April told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Wednesday that fears such deals could encourage Moscow to seize more Americans were overblown.
“They are going to do that anyway,” Reed said.
Biden must weigh the human consequences against the geopolitical costs. Does it really make sense for Bout to remain in a US cell if he could be used to get two Americans home? Whatever the larger consequences, the families of Whelan and Griner would take the deal in a heartbeat. And Biden has been facing extreme domestic political pressure from families, friends and colleagues of Griner especially.
A cynic might argue that his reeling presidency could use the kind of political win that returning Americans imprisoned overseas could bring. But which American would not hope that Biden would do the same for them?
Preet Bharara, the former US Attorney for the Southern District of New York who oversaw Bout’s prosecution, said he understood Biden’s dilemma.
“There is a very difficult balance here between not wanting to set a precedent for asymmetrical trades of people who haven’t really done much criminally in Russia for someone who has done something very significant criminally in the United States,” Bharara told CNN.
Both of Biden’s immediate predecessors did deals with US enemies like the Taliban and Iran to get Americans home. But this case is especially treacherous given the high profiles of those involved.
The hardest problems end up on presidents’ desks because no one else found a way to solve them.