The victory lap in Moscow began even before the An-148 jet carrying the notorious arms dealer once dubbed the “merchant of death” touched down at Vnukovo airport.
Viktor Bout, arrested in 2008, had been returned to Russia more than 14 years after his arrest, much of that time spent incarcerated in the US. “The game is over,” he had said as US Drug Enforcement Administration agents and Thai police burst into a hotel conference room where he thought he was meeting members of Farc, the Colombian rebel group – but they were actually undercover US agents.
Since that day, he has been something of an obsession among Russian officials, a person they claimed was wrongfully imprisoned and framed for trafficking arms around the world, but also seemed oddly important to the country’s security and pro-Kremlin establishment.
Both Russia and Bout had long denied suspicions that he was an asset for the Russian spy services, and in his first remarks after arriving, Bout seemed to nod and wink at the belief that he held some secret value for the Kremlin. “I don’t think I’m somehow important for Russian politics,” he said, before adding a line now common in Russian war films and military circles: “We don’t abandon our own, right?”
Now, using Brittney Griner, the US women’s basketball star convicted of carrying marijuana oil through Moscow in February, just before Russia launched its war in Ukraine, the Kremlin has found the recipe for a deal.
Russians connected to the Kremlin have treated the swap as greatly advantageous, especially as Russia is still holding several other US citizens, including Paul Whelan, a former marine arrested in 2018 and given a 16-year sentence on espionage charges. A senior US administration official also admitted that Washington had offered a number of alternatives for a deal that would have included Whelan, but were denied.
“Ultimately, we were confronted by only the choice that I mentioned,” the official said.
“It is a capitulation by America,” said Maria Butina, a Russian official who was previously convicted in the US as an unregistered foreign agent. She interviewed Bout upon his return. “It shows that Russia doesn’t abandon its own while America has shown its defeat.”
Analysts gave a more careful evaluation, noting that Bout has already served more than a decade in prison and most of his contacts and knowledge will have withered with time. Griner, meanwhile, was a highly visible US athlete who had recently been sentenced to nine years in prison.
“Here we are talking about individual cases, about specific people, so, of course, each side will have reason to believe that it has given more than it has received,” Andrey Kortunov, the head of the Russian International Affairs Council, told the Business FM radio station. At the same time, he conceded, Griner was not “of the same political calibre” as Bout.
Bout is unlikely to simply disappear back into Russia, where his release will be presented as a PR win. One popular television host wrote: “Everyone will forget Griner tomorrow” but “Bout’s life is only beginning”.
One Moscow analyst suggested he would be put in a prominent position, possibly being made an MP in the Russian Duma, where he would join others such as Butina and Andrey Lugovoi, the former KGB officer accused of taking part in the 2006 murder of Alexander Litvinenko.
As he landed in Moscow last week, Bout was met by a delegation of family members and officials bearing flowers, all of it broadcast live on TV. And in some of his first remarks, he echoed an opinion commonly held in the Kremlin: that the US is seeking Russia’s total collapse.
“They think they can destroy us again and divide Russia into many parts,” he said.
The deal was all the more remarkable for coming at a time when Russia is deep in international isolation after launching the devastating war in Ukraine that has killed tens of thousands. It may represent the absolute limit of what the US and Russian governments can agree on at this point.
“Those people were released and exchanged,” wrote Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor-in-chief of Russia in Global Affairs. “It doesn’t mean anything else.
“Will this become a step towards other negotiations? It won’t – why would it? It’s a specific case, a specific negotiation, a specific result. Nothing personal, an ice war.”