Who is Viktor Bout, Russian arms dealer eyed in rumored prisoner swap?

Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout at the Criminal Court in Bangkok in 2008. (Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images)

The fate of two Americans detained in Russia could depend on what the U.S. government decides to do with an imprisoned Russian arms dealer nicknamed the “Merchant of Death,” whose wild exploits once inspired a Hollywood film starring Nicolas Cage.

Viktor Bout, 55, is a former Soviet military translator who became an international air transport figure after the fall of communism. He is serving a 25-year sentence at a medium-security prison in Illinois for conspiring to kill U.S. nationals and selling weapons to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

The Kremlin has long pushed for Bout’s release, calling his conviction “unlawful.” In recent weeks, media reports in Russia have hinted that he could be swapped for WNBA star Brittney Griner and former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan.

Griner is facing drug charges stemming from her arrest at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport in February. Whelan was arrested and charged with spying in 2018 — and has called the trial politically motivated.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday that the United States made a “substantial proposal” to Russia to secure the two Americans’ release — but declined to say whether Bout was part of the deal.

A lawyer for Bout told Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency that he could not comment on the reports of a possible exchange involving his client but that “this may soon change.”

In April, another U.S. prisoner held in Moscow — former Marine Trevor Reed — was released in exchange for a Russian convicted in the United States.

Former Marine, Russian pilot freed in U.S.-Russia prisoner swap

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin signed decrees Friday to annex four occupied regions of Ukraine, following staged referendums that were widely denounced as illegal. Follow our live updates here.

The response: The Biden administration on Friday announced a new round of sanctions on Russia, in response to the annexations, targeting government officials and family members, Russian and Belarusian military officials and defense procurement networks. President Volodymyr Zelensky also said Friday that Ukraine is applying for “accelerated ascension” into NATO, in an apparent answer to the annexations.

In Russia: Putin declared a military mobilization on Sept. 21 to call up as many as 300,000 reservists in a dramatic bid to reverse setbacks in his war on Ukraine. The announcement led to an exodus of more than 180,000 people, mostly men who were subject to service, and renewed protests and other acts of defiance against the war.

The fight: Ukraine mounted a successful counteroffensive that forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in early September, as troops fled cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.

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