It is the most uneven of swaps at the most unlikely of times, but perhaps the intense pressure of this moment is why the exchange of a US basketball star for a Russian arms dealer ended up happening now.
On the surface, Brittney Griner and Viktor Bout are accused of ludicrously different crimes. Griner was sentenced to a Russian penal colony for possession of a single gram of cannabis oil. Bout is allegedly the most prolific arms dealer of the past decades, fuelling conflicts in Africa and beyond – and more specifically being convicted in a US court of plotting to kill Americans.
But the circumstances and political pressure on both sides reversed this imbalance. Griner gained a significance to Americans – based on her claims of innocence and her blatant seizure as a geopolitical pawn on the eve of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – that mandated the Biden administration to begin negotiations with the Kremlin at the worst point of US-Russian relations since at least the end of the Cold War.
Bout’s outsized importance to Russia has always been the bigger puzzle. How can one man be so valuable to Moscow they spend decades seeking his release at whatever level they can, and also be just an innocent and unfortunate global pilot and tradesman, as he has claimed? Who is this guy who denies everything?
I interviewed Bout in 2009 after months of negotiations while he was imprisoned in Bangkok. He is a polyglot who is loquacious, charming and can rhapsodize endlessly about the list of political characters he has personal relationships with globally.
I have seen videos of Bout in the Congo and across Africa, where he was pretty close to the conflicts there. He is accused, by multiple analysts and UN investigations, of proliferating small arms across that continent during the 90s and early 00s, which he denied. There were accusations he even armed al Qaeda, which he also denied. There was little he was not accused of doing, and few things he didn’t deny. He became a bogeyman of sorts, and the focus of a film starring Nicolas Cage called “Lord of War.”
That is the career history: the reputation as the man who became known as the “Merchant of Death.” What he spent 14 years in jail for, and was extradited to the United States over, was a complex sting by the US Drug Enforcement Agency, in which he was duped into agreeing to supply weapons to US agents pretending to be Colombian terrorists – weapons intended in the sting to kill Americans. It is an oddity that after all the crimes Bout was accused of, the one he did jail time for was a conspiracy – a plot, rather than an act.
For sure, he is a pilot and an entrepreneur. He was a military translator with a Soviet past. But there are allegations he worked in Russian intelligence and became an asset for them in the supply of weapons around the world to bolster Moscow’s geopolitical aims. There were suggestions too that he had served alongside senior Russians who are now close to President Vladimir Putin. This might have explained the intensity with which the Americans sought him. He was never a nobody.
There was always a curious mystique to Bout and his entourage. Yes, he was innocent, of everything, he would say. But also yes, he had had an interesting life. There was always the wink-wink you often get when someone knows there is more to a story than is being said openly.
The larger surprise today is how this exchange happened during the Russian invasion and brutalizing of Ukraine. It says two things: that Moscow and Washington are able to do business even as Russian bombs kill innocent Ukrainian civilians, and the United States provides arms to Ukraine that are killing Russian soldiers, and that nuclear powers can work on other thorny issues while bullets are flying. This is a good thing for everyone on the planet. It means some cool heads prevail, and basic interests win out.
It also shows some weakness on the side of Putin. At a time when he is hawkishly flaunting nuclear rhetoric against the West, he is also agreeing to high profile diplomatic deal to get back a figure of outsized, complex importance to Russia’s elite, the intelligence community, and national pride.
This is a man who many ordinary Russians may have heard of, and he certainly is of mythological importance to the Russian elite. He is not someone Moscow would – to paraphrase the ugly slogan of Russia’s invasion in which hundreds of soldiers’ bodies have remained strewn on the battlefield – “leave behind.”
These are the very people that Putin wants to curry favor with now. The deal may also have been more self-serving: Many believe that when Bout served in Africa, he had close ties to members of the Russian elite now close to Putin (though Bout has denied this too). Was this why the US spent such time and money to detain him? Did they think he would turn? We may never know.
Yes, it is a win for Putin, but one that comes at the cost of exposing his weakness and his need to keep the military elite he relies upon content.
Correction: This story has been updated to correct the number of years Bout spent in jail following the DEA sting operation in 2008.