The United States offered to trade a convicted arms dealer in order to free WNBA star Brittney Griner, who has been detained in Russia since Feb. 17, after being accused of carrying vape cartridges with traces of cannabis oil into the country.
So who is Viktor Bout, and why does Russia want him back?
‘Merchant of Death’: After months of public pressure and behind-the-scenes negotiations, the Biden administration offered to exchange convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout for Griner and U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, whom the U.S. considers wrongfully detained by Russia.
Bout is one of the most prominent arms dealers of the last 30 years, whose notoriety earned him the nickname, the “Merchant of Death.” Nicolas Cage starred in the 2005 film “Lord of War,” which is loosely based on Bout’s life.
Bout was trained by the Soviet military, and took advantage of the fractured former Soviet states in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union, flying transport planes loaded with weapons all over the world. He has been linked to wars in Afghanistan, Angola, Congo, Lebanon, Somalia and Yemen, and has been rumored to sell arms to both sides in the same conflict.
The U.S. accused Bout of conspiracy to provide support or resources to a foreign terrorist organization, and he was suspected of providing weapons to Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
Bout was arrested during a sting operation in Thailand in 2008. He was extradited to the U.S. in 2010, where he was convicted in 2011 and sentenced to 25 years in prison for conspiring to kill Americans.
Why does Russia want Bout? Russian President Vladimir Putin’s motives for wanting Bout are the source of speculation. Bout isn’t exactly an ally of the Kremlin — he did, after all, traffic in weapons intended to be used by the Soviet military — but some see the effort as sending a message to his people that Putin will stand up to foreign adversaries to protect Russians.
“It’s a real good public relations move for him to show that he’s taking care of his own,” former CIA officer Dan Hoffman told NPR.
What’s next? Even with the U.S. putting an offer on the table, negotiations to swap prisoners may take months, or even years, to fully play out. The Kremlin has yet to respond substantively to the offer.
“So far, there is no agreement on this issue,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Thursday.