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.

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