This week Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that the Biden administration had offered a “substantial proposal” for a prisoner swap to the Russians to bring basketball player Brittney Griner and former Marine Paul Whelan back home.
Griner is accused of possession of marijuana in Russia. Whelan is accused of spying.
In return, Russia allegedly receives famed arms smuggler Viktor Bout, whose life was loosely linked to the main character in the film Lord of War starring Nicholas Cage.
If you haven’t seen the movie, I would recommend it; it will make you feel a bit icky about how things operate in some of the darker corners of our globe.
Viktor Bout is being offered in exchange for Paul Whelan and Brittany Griner.
This is a VERY big deal and don’t let anyone tell you differently. https://t.co/RavCG2BOix
— Terrell Jermaine Starr 🇺🇦 (@terrelljstarr) July 27, 2022
Many favor this swap, while others see that there are apparent possible negative repercussions with letting loose a man widely known as the Merchant of Death. To fully grasp the situation, you must first attempt to know the man behind the moniker.
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The Bill Gates of Arms Dealing
Like most international men of mystery, there is little known about Bout’s beginnings other than he was a Soviet intelligence officer. The timing of his departure from the Soviet intelligence service fell in line with the fall of the Soviet Union.
Bout was naturally entrepreneurial, collected fleets of abandoned cargo planes, and allegedly took advantage of an endless supply of abandoned weaponry scattered throughout the former Soviet Union. He was known to provide anything from Kalashnikov assault rifles to massive helicopter gunships to whoever would pay him the right price.
Viktor Bout’s operation was staffed with Ukrainian and Russian pilots who were paid $10,000 per flight. Since they were flying weapons into war-torn countries, many with strict embargoes placed upon them, the salary was a form of hazard pay.
He conducted business with Liberia, Tanzania, Burkina Faso, Uganda, Sudan, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Algeria, where he sold weapons to the government and the rebels. His dealings with Al-Qaeda and the Taliban caught the eye of our government, however.
Why is @espn censoring the news and leaving out the fact that Viktor Bout, who aided terrorists targeting Americans, will be swapped?!
Shame on ESPN! https://t.co/ImmUuntpRC
— Richard Grenell (@RichardGrenell) July 28, 2022
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Caught in a Trap
In 2002 the LA Times wrote an expose on Viktor in which a U.S. Defense Department official said:
“Viktor Bout is like the Donald Trump or Bill Gates of arms trafficking.”
He was eventually caught trying to sell $20 million worth of weapons to undercover Drug Enforcement Administration agents. The agents were acting as members of Columbia’s Revolutionary Armed Forces, or what is commonly referred to as FARC.
When they told Bout that the weapons they were purchasing from him would be used to kill American pilots, he responded coolly:
“We have the same enemy.”
He would later be sentenced to a 25-year prison sentence for the following charges:
- Conspiring to kill Americans
- Acquiring and exporting anti-aircraft missiles
- Providing material support to a terrorist organization
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A Much-Needed Political ‘Win’
When the Biden administration received praise this past March for brokering the prisoner swap of former Marine Trevor Reed for Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was serving a sentence for cocaine smuggling, the door was opened for future prisoner swaps.
With the administration desperately needing a political win timed nicely before the midterms, this particular swap could prove to be a win-win, with some saying no real consequences. A source familiar with the proposed exchange said:
“We’d be getting 13 years off Paul Whelan’s sentence, plus the years we get off Brittney’s, and the Russians would get about six off Bout’s. It’s time to clear the decks and bring our people home.”
Still, others caution about what Bout can offer the Russian government. Former Defense Intelligence Agency officer Rebekah Koffler explains:
“Moscow wants him back because he possesses critical insights that he can share with the GRU, his former agency. Having been in a U.S. prison and interrogated by U.S. officials, he knows what our intelligence requirements are and other information that is valuable for the Russians.”
We ran the numbers on a Viktor Bout for Brittney Griner trade, it’s not looking good… pic.twitter.com/iLaBu5Nbcp
— All Sports Culture (@ASCSportsMedia) July 27, 2022
Unknown Future Consequences
It isn’t easy being the leader of the free world, and decisions like these rank among the most difficult choices. The detention of Ms. Griner for having cannabis oil was indeed seen as a win for the Russians.
If true that the US is offering Viktor Bout for the Americans in Moscow, as someone who covered Viktor for years and considers his conviction well deserved, it’s a good trade. VB’s done 14 tough years in Supermax holding him longer isn’t worth 10 years of the poor woman’s life.
— Mitchell Prothero (@mitchprothero) July 27, 2022
As one former U.S. official said of her detention, she “hits all these cultural buttons” being a black, gay, female, star athlete. Mr. Whelan’s case was hardly covered until the family forced the conversation when Ms. Griner received so much media and political attention.
Being willing to swap high-value prisoners for American citizens could signal to our enemies that arresting the right Americans can get you what you want. The State Department has added Russia to a list of six countries labeled with a “D” indicator, meaning there is a “risk of wrongful detention of U.S. nationals.”
The other countries Russia shares space with on this list are:
- North Korea
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The Second Coming of The ‘Lord of War’?
When Bout was sentenced in 2012, then Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said:
“Viktor Bout has been international arms trafficking enemy number one for many years, arming some of the most violent conflicts around the globe.”
While there is no guarantee that the Russians will accept this offer, the fact that we possibly proposed this swap causes me some concern and should worry you as well. The idea that Viktor Bout wouldn’t eventually step back into his role as the dealer of death and merchant of mayhem is folly.
Hollywood about to make a sequel to Lord of War lol pic.twitter.com/G0vUVi7zL4
— Spinachbrah 🥗 (@Spinachbrah) July 28, 2022
And what a time to be in business, with weapons rolling into a former Soviet land known for arms trafficking. I spent some time in Africa around the same locations Bout liked to do business. It’s not just warlords who are pierced by the bullets from Bout’s Kalashnikovs.
But business is always good for peddlers of pain and dealers in death. With his sentence up in about five years, perhaps we might as well get two Americans back now and worry about the inevitable consequences later.
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