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Where most people saw chaos, Viktor Bout saw opportunity.
Bout, a 55-year-old Russian, was the world’s most notorious arms trafficker before a US court convicted him in 2011 and sent him to an Illinois prison. He is now at the center of a potential prisoner swap between the United States and Russia, which is holding two Americans the Biden administration hopes to free.
Bout was in his twenties when the Soviet Union fractured in 1991, leaving vast amounts of Soviet military hardware scattered across 15 new countries. Most of them were ill-equipped to pay their troops or keep track of the weapons they had just inherited. Almost everything was available for a price.
Trained by the Soviet military as a linguist, Bout began acquiring Soviet military transport planes and loading them with weapons. The United States says he sold them all over the world – but mainly in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
He was enterprising, not ideological, selling to governments fighting rebels and rebels fighting governments. It has often been difficult to separate fact from fiction when documenting Bout’s work, but numerous reports indicate that he even sold arms to both sides in the same conflict.
Bout has always denied selling weapons, saying he flies flowers and frozen chickens to some of the most violent places in the world.
He was always difficult to pin down, but he lived openly in Moscow, traveled extensively, spoke to reporters occasionally, and seemed to welcome at least some of the attention. He became so notorious that Hollywood made a 2005 movie loosely based on his life called The Lord of Deathwith Nicholas Cage.
Despite international sanctions and threats of arrest, Bout managed to stay one step ahead of law enforcement until 2008, when he was captured in an undercover operation in Thailand. , hosted by the US Drug Enforcement Agency.
The Thais extradited Bout to the United States two years later, where he was charged with conspiracy to kill Americans. He was convicted in a Manhattan court in 2011 and is just under halfway through his 25-year sentence in a prison in Marion, Illinois.
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The corner of the Kremlin
So why would Russian leader Vladimir Putin want to bring Bout back?
After all, he made his money selling weapons that were intended for use by the military and successor countries of the Soviet Union.
When CIA Director William Burns was asked this question last week at the Aspen Security Forum, he replied succinctly: “That’s a good question, because Viktor Bout is a bad guy. “
Dan Hoffman, a former CIA officer who served in Russia, said Putin’s motives should be seen through the lens of his ongoing battle with the United States.
“Every chance he gets, Vladimir Putin wants to show he can take on Russia’s main enemy,” Hoffman said. “It’s a very good public relations gesture for him to show that he cares for his people.”
The United States and Russia have a habit of making agreements to obtain the return of their own citizens. In April, the United States freed a Russian pilot convicted or conspiring to smuggle drugs into the United States, and Russia freed Trevor Roseaua former Marine who had been convicted of assaulting a Moscow policeman.
More generally, countries have expelled suspected spies in give and take deals.
But the ongoing negotiations appear uneven in some respects. The United States would release a convicted arms trafficker who operated internationally for nearly two decades.
Griner, 31, is the professional basketball star who pleaded guilty to having hash oil in his suitcase at a Moscow airport in February. Whelan, 52, a former Marine who traveled openly in Russia for years, was arrested in 2019 and convicted of espionage in a secret trial.
Dan Hoffman says he supports efforts to secure the Americans’ release.
“It’s dirty business, but there are two bad options,” he said. “One is to let American citizens get sick, and potentially even worse, in jail. And the other is to basically do a dirty business. If that’s me, I’ll get my American citizens out.”
Blinken said he presented a plan to Russia for the return of two Americans, although he did not mention Bout by name. Blinken plans to speak with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, although it is unclear when that might be. The two men have not spoken since Russia invaded Ukraine in February.
A US-Russian prisoner swap would indicate that the two countries can still do business on some level despite the terrible state of relations and the backdrop of the war in Ukraine, where the Americans are the main supplier of arms to the Ukrainians.
But analysts say there is no real prospect that the general atmosphere – which is going from bad to worse – will improve.
Greg Myre is a national security correspondent for NPR. follow him @gregmyre1.