Viktor Bout, a Russian notorious arms dealer dubbed the “Merchant of Death,” said that he kept a portrait of President Vladimir Putin in his prison cell in the United States.
On Thursday, Bout,55, was swapped in a prisoner exchange for Brittney Griner, the U.S. basketball star detained in Russia since February on drug charges. President Biden commuted Bout’s sentence, a senior U.S. official said.
Bout was booked in at the U.S. penitentiary in Marion, Ill., in a special unit so restrictive that it has the nickname “Little Guantánamo,” a broad-chested, mustachioed man nicknamed the “merchant of death,” who speaks at least six languages, was serving a 25-year term after building a gun-smuggling empire that spanned the globe.
But why did Russia want Bout back so bad?
The arms trafficker refused to cooperate with U.S. authorities, even as he sat for over a decade, isolated and alone, in a cell thousands of miles from his home in Moscow. That silence could be rewarded.
“He kept his cool in prison, never exposed anything to the Americans, as far as I can tell,” said Russian journalist Andrei Soldatov.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry celebrated Bout’s release in a statement Thursday, saying the arms dealer had “returned to his homeland.”
“Thank God this exchange happened,” Maria Butina, a member of the Russian State Duma, told Russian Defense Ministry media outlet Zvezda. “I am happy. My heart sings. We don’t abandon our own people.”
Russian political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya, the founder of the R.Politik political analysis group, said in July that Putin wanted something deeper than political gain.
“We have a special word in the Russian language for people like Bout: svoi. It means someone from ‘us.’ It’s someone who worked for the motherland, at least in [the government’s] eyes.”
Bout, who was accused of arming rebels in some of the world’s bloodiest conflicts, was arrested in Thailand in a U.S. sting operation in 2008, extradited to the U.S. and sentenced in 2012 to 25 years in prison.
Bout was arrested in Thailand, where he had been secretly recorded by the DEA organizing the purchase of 100 surface-to-air missiles, 20,000 AK-47 rifles, 20,000 grenades, 740 mortars, 350 sniper rifles, five tons of C-4 explosives and 10 million rounds of ammunition for people he thought were agents for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), an insurgent group.
When the agents posing as buyers for the FARC said the weapons would be used against U.S. Air Force pilots working with the Colombian government, Bout could be heard telling them they had “the same enemy.”
Bout on Saturday in his first interview after being released from the US jail said, “I am proud that I am a Russian person, and our president is Putin,” the former Soviet air force pilot said in the 40-minute interview.
Mr Bout praised Russian President Vladimir Putin and backed Moscow’s assault on Ukraine.
“I know that we will win,” he added, saying he was enjoying snow and “the air of freedom” since his return to Russia on Thursday.
Bout, 55, said he “fully” supported Russia’s military offensive in Ukraine and would have volunteered to go to the front if he had the “opportunity and necessary skills.”
“Why did we not do it earlier?” he said, referring to Putin’s decision to launch an offensive against Ukraine in February.