Editor’s note, December 8: Russia has freed Brittney Griner in exchange for the release of Viktor Bout. An excerpt of Today, Explained’s episode about the swap, originally published on August 9, follows.
“I never meant to hurt anybody,” Brittney Griner told a Russian judge during her sentencing hearing last week. “I made an honest mistake. And I hope that, in your ruling, that it doesn’t end my life here.”
Griner’s been in the custody of Russian authorities since February 17 when she was detained at a Moscow airport by customs officials who say she was in possession of vape cartridges containing less than a gram of cannabis oil. Griner pleaded guilty in the hope of garnering a milder penalty. And she told the judge that the oil was for her personal medical use.
Despite Griner’s hopes for mercy, the WNBA All-Star, former WNBA champion, and three-time Russian Premier League champion was handed down a harsh nine-year prison sentence for drug trafficking.
Now, many are speculating that the United States Department of State engaged in negotiations to trade one of the most notorious arms dealers in history — a Russian named Viktor Bout — for Griner and former security consultant Paul Whelan — who the US says are “wrongfully detained.”
“We put a substantial proposal on the table weeks ago to facilitate their release,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters during a press conference. “Our governments have communicated repeatedly and directly on that proposal, and I’ll use the conversation to follow up personally and, I hope, move us toward a resolution.”
Bout — a 55-year-old former Soviet military translator who became an international weapons trafficker after the fall of the Soviet Union — is currently serving a 25-year sentence at a medium-security prison in Illinois for selling weapons to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and plotting to kill US nationals.
“[Bout’s] ability to supply weapons to some of the worst warlords on the planet was, I think, transformational for” wars in Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere, says journalist and security consultant Douglas Farah.
Farah is an expert on Bout’s exploits, and he’s the co-author of the definitive book about Viktor Bout: Merchant of Death: Money, Guns, Planes, and the Man Who Makes War Possible. It came out a few years after Lord of War, a movie in which a Viktor Bout-type arms dealer is played by Nicolas Cage.
But just in case you’ve never seen the movie or haven’t yet read Farah’s book, Today, Explained podcast host Sean Rameswaram asked Farah to break down who exactly Viktor Bout is and to weigh in on whether or not this seemingly lopsided prisoner swap is worthwhile. A partial transcript of their conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below.
Let’s just get right out the gate with this question. Viktor Bout for Brittney Griner. Fair trade?
I don’t think it’s a fair trade, but I think it’s a necessary trade.
I think that Viktor has actual blood on his hands for many conflicts and has done horrendous things, or empowered people to do horrendous things for the years he was trafficking in weapons to Charles Taylor in Liberia, the RUF in Sierra Leone, Laurent Kabila in Democratic Republic of Congo, the Northern Alliance and then the Taliban in Afghanistan.
So there’s nothing fair about it in terms of absolute justice. But I do think that he is not in a position to wreak a lot more havoc in his life. And I think Brittney Griner is in significant danger in Russia because of her sexual orientation, because of who she is, and because of the prize that the Russians have in her. That is worth the trade at this point to bring her back.
Who is Viktor Bout? Where did he come from?
Viktor Bout came out of the Soviet intelligence structures. He was working in Africa as a young man, late 20s, early 30s, when the wall goes down. And he has this incredible bolt of lightning moment, road to Damascus moment, where he realizes that there are all of these aircraft sitting around the former Soviet Union, that no one’s flying because no one has money for fuel. And there are all of these weapons depots where there are massive amounts of weapons, where the guards aren’t being paid, where you can buy, you know, boatloads of AK-47s or light anti-tank weapons or rocket-propelled grenades, essentially for a song.
So he began flying the aircraft to the United Arab Emirates, from the United Arab Emirates, set up a distribution hub where he could fly to get the weapons, bring them back, and then start distributing around to all the wars that were breaking out in Africa at this point is where he initially got started.
So when did he get started?
Bout began in the late 1990s: ’96, ’97, ’98. It could have started earlier. No one knew who he was for a long time.
I was hearing as a reporter the name “Viktor” delivering weapons. The Brits, the UN, other people had picked up that there was somebody supplying these weapons. But I don’t think anybody really knew until the British parliamentarians stood up in the British parliament and called him the “Merchant of Death” and publicly identified him.
That was the first sort of coming out of Viktor Bout as a public figure at that point.
What makes him the “Merchant of Death”? It’s such an incredible, powerful, and horrifying title. Was he wildly successful in comparison to other arms dealers around the world?
Oh, without question. Many people could sell you lots of AK-47s across Africa. I was living there in the times of the war and covering the wars. It wasn’t hard to acquire crappy old Soviet weapons. It wasn’t hard to acquire a few hand grenades.
But what Viktor Bout brought to the table was the ability to deliver attack helicopters, deliver anti-tank weapons that could be fired through entire villages and burn a village down with one shot. And the fact that you could bring in high-caliber machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, no one else could do that.
And so as he built his reputation, both sides of the same conflict would hire him on numerous occasions. So in what was then Zaire, you had Mobutu, the dictator [who] had been there a long time, being chased out of office by Laurent Kabila’s forces sweeping across the DRC. And Viktor was selling weapons to both sides.
And while Kabila’s forces were trying to kill Mobutu, literally as he was fleeing the country, he flew out of the country on Viktor Bout’s aircraft. So he had armed the people who were trying to shoot down his own airplane and the president. And that’s what made him so incredibly successful, was that he could do all of that.
Who was his supplier this whole time? Is it just Russia?
It was the entire former Soviet bloc where all of these arsenals had been abandoned. So if someone showed up and paid the commander $1,000 and said, “I’ll take this load of weapons out, thank you very much.” Fine.
In most of the Soviet era, major arsenals had airstrips built into their facilities so he could land there, load up, and fly out. And it was, you know, apparently a relatively easy process.
It sounds like he did a lot of dirty deeds, especially on the continent of Africa. Does his involvement in them play a central role in accelerating the conflict or accelerating the end of the conflict? How important a player is he in these conflicts?
His ability to supply weapons to some of the worst warlords on the planet was, I think, transformational for those wars.
When these wars started, most people had hunting rifles and machetes, and they were nasty and they were hellacious. But when you add AK-47s and light anti-tank weapons and RPGs, obviously the human toll escalates dramatically.
Okay. We’re talking about Africa and the Middle East primarily. But I think a fact that is sometimes overlooked is that he was also, at various points, something of an ally to the United States?
Well, this is one of the reasons why I think the trade should be considered, apart from whether it’s just or not.
In fact, during the Iraq conflict, when hardly anyone would fly supplies to US troops on the ground, Viktor Bout flew hundreds of missions for US and British and other forces into a war zone that was very important to us. And as my co-author, Steve Braun, documented in the book, American officers who were making those decisions understood who Viktor Bout was. In fact, they publicly acknowledged that at one point. But their trade-off in their conversations with us was, do we let our people on the ground die from lack of ammunition and food because this guy is a criminal? Or do we deal with the criminal and get the people on the ground what they need?
Has Russia ever made any stink about his imprisonment in the US?
Constantly, yes. From the very beginning, they have had their Congress, their Duma has issued numerous declarations asking for his release. Every time a US person has been arrested, they’ve always raised the possibility of an exchange for Viktor. So, yes, this is certainly not the first time that they have raised the issue of trading for Viktor.
But this is the first time they might actually get him back?
It’s the first time we know that the US has actually considered doing anything like that, yes. I think it’s the first time one could say that he may actually go back.
How are we supposed to wrap our heads around how insanely lopsided this is? It’s estimated Viktor Bout may be responsible for the deaths of maybe tens of thousands of brown people around the world. And Brittney Griner maybe smokes some weed once in a while.
I don’t think it’s a fair trade. I have gone out of my way in talking about this and in our book and the other things to point out how absolutely horrific what Viktor Bout did, what he enabled people to do over a period of years.
And you talked about, you know, the tens of thousands of deaths, but there are an equal number more of rapes. There are that many burned villages. There are that many children who were kidnapped, often forced to kill their own parents, burn their own villages, and become child soldiers.
So I have no illusions about who Viktor Bout was.
My main point is that he could be up for parole in a couple of years anyway. He’s no longer, I don’t think, going to be able to function in the world he helped create at that time. And Brittney, as a gay woman, well-identified, being held in a society where at least the upper echelons are extremely anti-gay, anti-LGBTQ community. So that’s a significant risk, and if you can get her out without causing the rest of the world significant damage, it should be considered. I don’t think it’s that Viktor Bout did anything like Brittney did. She clearly has done nothing remotely comparable.
Is there a chance that if this trade happens, that it’s Griner for Bout, that a country like, I don’t know, Iran or China or even Russia who facilitates the trade, says, “Oh, this is great, we should do this the next time LeBron James visits or the next time, you know, who knows, Nic Cage is in town.”
I think that’s a very real concern. And I do not minimize that.
My basic premise with Russia is that they are so far off the rails in regard to international law and human rights … they’re going to grab whoever they’re going to grab, whether there’s a trade or not. They’re operating now in their own logic, which is why they invaded Ukraine and have done all these things.
I do think the question about other countries, particularly China, because they’re a big country and can do it, may give this pause. And I think that that is something that has to be considered and it has to be considered by people who want to travel to these areas as well. I mean, I don’t think anybody in their right mind right now would want to travel to Russia as a basketball player or a tourist because the risk is too high.
I don’t think that will change if they give Brittney back. I don’t think that that basic equation will change.
Do you think there’s something that these sort of international prisoner swaps teaches us about how the world works?
Well, I think it shows that every country has specific interests that it wants to protect and defend.
And I think one of the things I would like to think about with the United States in this particular case is we are willing to show compassion and a level of mercy that Russia would never be able to share in a similar situation. I don’t think it makes us necessarily morally superior or anything like that. But I think that being able to show compassion, especially when a sentence has been served, Viktor Bout’s been in for 11 years, he was actually held since 2008 in really crappy conditions in Thailand. He has those three years added on to it. So I think that the sum of what he has paid, if he stays in prison here and gets out in two years, if we can just do it now and get Brittney back and save her life, in a way. And I think to me, that is an act of mercy for Viktor and an act of compassion for Brittney.