Who is the Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout?

Speculation is mounting that the US may release Victor Bout, a convicted arms dealer named the “Merchant of Death” in order to secure the women’s basketball star’s freedom. Brittany Griner and former US Marines Paul WhelanBoth of whom are imprisoned in Russia.

Russian state media have speculated for months that Griner, who was detained at Moscow airport in February on drug charges, and Whelan, who was sentenced to 16 years in Russian prison on espionage charges, would One setup, he said, could be swapped out for the bout the Kremlin has long sought independence from. But the Biden administration remained silent about the possibility.

Then on Wednesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken offered the first public glimpse at efforts to bring Griner and Whelan home, saying the US had put forward a “substantial offer” to Russia.

Administration officials would not respond to US media reports that the proposal on the table included a potential prisoner swap for the bout. Bout’s lawyers also would not confirm whether his client was part of the talks. Kremlin Said no deal has been done “yet”,

Bout, a former Soviet military translator turned international arms dealer, has been imprisoned for more than a decade after being taken to Thailand in a three-continental Drug Enforcement Administration sting operation.

“Victor Bout is, in my eyes, one of the most dangerous men on the face of the earth,” said Michael Braun, former head of operations for the US Drug Enforcement Administration.60 minutes” in 2010.

Russian Victor bout extradition hearing postponed
Victor Bout sits inside a detention cell at the Bangkok Supreme Court on July 28, 2008 in Bangkok, Thailand.

Chumsak Kanokanan / Getty Images

According to a New Yorker profile published in 2012, Bout, the son of a bookkeeper and auto mechanic, was drafted into the Soviet Army when he was 18 years old after playing competitive volleyball as a teenager. He served in an infantry brigade for two years. in western Ukraine, then applied to the Military Institute of Foreign Languages ​​in Moscow, where he studied Portuguese. Bout insisted to The New Yorker that he was never a spy, but others, including his former business partner and a former CIA officer, said he once worked for the GRU, the Soviet foreign military intelligence agency.

In 1995, when he was 28 years old, he began spending time in a cargo hangar at Sharjah’s International Airport in the United Arab Emirates, eventually launching his own cargo airline, Air Cess, with a small fleet of Russian aircraft, flying to Africa. And used to deliver goods to Afghanistan.

In the years that followed, Bout helped fuel civil wars around the world by supplying more sophisticated weapons, sometimes bloody, to both sides of conflicts. “If I didn’t do it, someone else would,” Bout told the New Yorker.

By then he was on the radar of US and British officials. Peter Hahn, Minister of State for Africa at the UK Foreign Office, sounded the alarm as British troops in Africa came under attack from increasingly sophisticated weapons.

“Ban-busters continue to erupt in Sierra Leone and Angola, resulting in countless lives being lost and mutilated. Victor Bout is actually the main ban-buster, and the Death Merchant who owns the air. Has companies providing arms and other logistics support to rebels in Angola and Sierra Leone and taking out the diamonds that pay for those weapons … assisting and provoking people who turn their guns on British soldiers,” Hahn said in 2000. I told the House of Commons. ,

According to the book “Operation Relentless: The Hunt for the Richest, Deadliest Criminal in History” by Damian, the “Merchant of Death” moniker “came automatically after he had read another intelligence briefing on Bout’s activities.” Lewis. “It struck an immediate chord and the press raged.”

In the US, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Control unveiled sanctions against Bout and his companies, which confiscated assets and prevented any transactions through US banks. But his business was so concealed by front companies that the US government inadvertently contracted with two of his companies to supply supplies to US troops in Iraq.

By 2007, the Drug Enforcement Administration devised a plan to kick the bout out of Russia with an arms deal that would be hard to refuse. The agency hired an undercover agent to contact a trusted associate of Bout’s about a major business deal. That exchange marked the first meeting between the DEA’s counterfeit weapons buyers, posing as officers of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, also known as the FARC, and Bout’s allies on the island of Curaçao, some off the coast. Colombia a hundred miles away.

Bout’s colleague, Andrew Smullian, traveled to Moscow to present Bout the deal. Smullian met with detectives in Copenhagen two weeks later and told them that his business partner liked the deal.

Weeks later, Bout was on his way to Thailand, thinking he would meet with FARC officials to discuss shipping what prosecutors called “an arsenal of military-grade weapons” for attacking American helicopters in Colombia.

During a March 2008 meeting in a Bangkok hotel conference room, Bout told DEA informants posing as FARC officials that he could drop weapons in Colombia and acknowledged that the weapons could be used to kill Americans.

After listening to the meeting, Thai police and DEA agents broke into the room and arrested the bout.

“The game is over,” said the bout.

Alleged Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout
The accused Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout arrived in Bangkok court on October 5, 2010.

Nicolas Asfouri/AFP via Getty Images

He was extradited to the US in 2010 after two years of legal proceedings and pleaded guilty to terrorism charges a year later.

Bout was sentenced to 25 years in prison. Now 55 years old, he was expected to be released in August 2029, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons website.

“They’ll try to lock me in for the rest of my life,” Bout told The New Yorker before his sentencing. “But I’ll be back to Russia. I don’t know when. But I’m still young.”

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