In the West, he is known as a convicted illicit arms dealer, “the merchant of death” who helped fuel wars around the world. But in Russia, Viktor Bout was welcomed home this week as a hero, or at least an innocent victim of American politics.
The Russian government, its allies and the pro-Kremlin media relentlessly hailed the US release of Mr. Bout, 55, in exchange for American basketball star Brittney Griner, and claimed it meant that President Vladimir V. Putin had defeated President Biden.
It was the rare development they could seize on as a victory for Mr. Putin in a war against Ukraine and a confrontation with the West that went wrong for Russia. And it came after years of Russian media and officials repeatedly citing Mr. Bout’s case as a monstrous injustice and a major diplomatic irritant.
“Everyone will forget about Griner tomorrow,” Yevgeny Popov, co-host of a news program on a state media channel and member of Russia’s parliament, wrote on the Telegram app on Thursday. “Bout’s life is just beginning.”
When he got off the plane that took him home after nearly 15 years in prison, Mr. Bout was greeted by his wife, mother and a film crew from another state broadcaster. He was interviewed by a third state news agency.
The release of Brittney Griner
The American basketball star had been detained in Russia since February for smuggling hash oil into the country.
- Anxiety turns into relief: Brittney Griner’s supporters watched with dismay as her situation seemed to worsen over the summer. Now they are celebrating his release.
- The Russian Playbook: By detaining Mrs. Griner, the Kremlin weaponized the pain to get the US to hand over a convicted arms dealer. Can the same tactic work in the war in Ukraine?
- A test for women’s sport: The exit was a win for WNBA players and fans, who pushed furiously for it. But the athlete’s plight has also shed light on gender inequalities in sport.
What none of the reactions quite explained is why Mr. Bout, described by Russia as a simple businessman operating a small air cargo company, meant so much to the Kremlin, for so many years. of years. There has long been speculation that he worked for a Russian spy agency, that his arms sales furthered Kremlin ends, that he had personal ties to high-level government figures, or some combination of these. factors – which he has always denied.
Maria Butina, who served more than a year in prison in the United States for being an unregistered agent of Russia, conducted the first interview with him after his release, for the media RT. Ms Butina, now a Russian lawmaker, called the swap “America’s surrender” and asked about high-level interest in her case.
“I don’t think I’m important for Russian politics,” Bout replied. He added, “We don’t give up on ours, do we?”
But the Russian Foreign Ministry said it was inundated with congratulations on his release and noted how many times the Kremlin demanded his freedom. The government’s human rights commissioner, Tatyana Moskalkova, said: “I think everyone who has followed the ordeal of this wonderful person, who was the victim of American insinuations, is now filled with joy”, Russian news agency Tass reported.
In the RT interview, Mr Bout echoed Mr Putin in describing Russia as a victim of Western schemes. “The West thinks they didn’t finish us off in 1990 when the Soviet Union started to crumble,” he said. “They think they can destroy us again and split Russia into several parts.”
But he didn’t fully rehearse the Kremlin script, sidestepping suggestions that Mr Biden was weak and Americans were Russophobic.
Mr. Bout was once a Soviet military officer and translator, but Western governments and human rights groups say that in the 1990s and 2000s he was one of the world’s leading arms traffickers, defying international sanctions to sell to factions in many conflicts, especially in Africa. . The 2005 film “Lord of War”, starring Nicolas Cage, was loosely based on him.
In March 2008, US agents arrested Mr. Bout during an undercover operation in Bangkok, posing as Colombian guerrillas who wanted to buy weapons, including anti-aircraft missiles which they said would be used to kill American pilots. Despite strong Russian objections, Thailand eventually agreed to extradite him to the United States for trial.
In 2011, he was convicted in New York of conspiracy to kill US citizens, conspiracy to provide support to a foreign terrorist organization, and conspiracy to acquire and export illegal weapons. He was sentenced to 25 years in federal prison.
At the time, the Russian Foreign Ministry denounced the tribunal as “clearly carrying out a political order”, aided by “the smear campaign unleashed by the American media”.
Without Mr Biden’s intervention to secure Ms Griner’s freedom, Mr Bout would not have been eligible for release for seven years.