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Russia wanted Viktor Bout back, badly. The question is: Why?

Viktor Bout waits for his verdict in the detention room at a criminal court in Bangkok in August 2009. (Apichart Weerawong/AP)
8 min

This story has been updated.

At the U.S. penitentiary in Marion, Ill., in a special unit so restrictive that it has the nickname “Little Guantánamo,” a broad-chested, mustachioed man nicknamed the “merchant of death,” who speaks at least six languages, was serving a 25-year term after building a gun-smuggling empire that spanned the globe.

His name was Viktor Bout. And his native Russia wanted him home, badly. The big question: Why?

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

On Thursday, Bout was swapped in a prisoner exchange for Brittney Griner, the U.S. basketball star detained in Russia since February on drug charges. President Biden commuted Bout’s sentence, a senior U.S. official said.

Russian state media released this edited footage of the prisoner swap between Brittney Griner and Viktor Bout on Dec. 8. (Video: Russian state media)

Griner was accused of arriving at an airport near Moscow in February with vape cartridges in her luggage containing less than a gram of cannabis oil, which is illegal in Russia. Her lawyers said it was prescribed to treat chronic pain and other conditions.

Bout, 55, is the most notorious arms dealer of his time, accused of profiting from weapons that fueled conflict in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

President Biden spoke alongside Vice President Harris and Brittney Griner’s wife, Cherelle, on Dec. 8, announcing Russia had freed WNBA star in a prisoner swap. (Video: The Washington Post)

There is little doubt that Bout is a top prize for Russian officials, who protested his treatment since his 2008 arrest in Thailand after a Drug Enforcement Administration sting. Steve Zissou, Bout’s New York-based lawyer, warned in July that “no Americans will be exchanged unless Viktor Bout is sent home.”

What’s less clear, however, is exactly why Russia cares so much about Bout. When CIA Director William J. Burns, at the Aspen Security Forum in July, was asked why Russia wanted Bout, Burns responded: “That’s a good question, because Viktor Bout’s a creep.”

Bout’s lawyer argued that the swap was fair.

“As I have urged for some time, given the 15 long years that Viktor Bout has been in custody since the United States government targeted him in 2006, his exchange for Brittney Griner, who has only been in custody for a few months, is fair,” Zissou told The Washington Post on Thursday night. “Hopefully, this is just the first of many reasonable agreements between the U.S. and Russia that will lead to better relations and a safer world.”

Though Russia complained that Bout was entrapped by the DEA, many U.S. officials and analysts say Moscow’s anger was not linked to the merits of the case, but rather Bout’s links to Russian military intelligence.

U.S. officials hope public pressure will bring Russian release of prisoners

“It’s clear that he had significant ties to Russian government circles,” said Lee Wolosky, a National Security Council official in the Clinton administration who led early efforts to tackle Bout’s network.

Moscow released WNBA star Brittney Griner in a swap for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout on Dec. 8. (Video: The Washington Post)

Though less famous than the KGB and its successor the FSB, Russia’s military intelligence agency, commonly known as the GRU, has a reputation for taking bolder and riskier actions. It has been accused in recent years of operations ranging from hacking elections to assassinating dissidents.

Additionally, reports suggest that Bout could have close ties to Igor Sechin, a former deputy prime minister of Russia and an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Both Sechin and Bout served with the Soviet military in Africa during the 1980s.

Bout has denied any such links to the GRU. He has also said he doesn’t know Sechin.

But that silence could be the point. The arms trafficker refused to cooperate with U.S. authorities, even as he sat for over a decade, isolated and alone, in a cell thousands of miles from his home in Moscow. That silence could be rewarded.

“He kept his cool in prison, never exposed anything to the Americans, as far as I can tell,” said Russian journalist Andrei Soldatov.

Simon Saradzhyan of Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs said that Bout could never have operated such a large smuggling business without government protection, but that he never spoke about it. “The Russian government is eager to retrieve him so that it stays that way,” Saradzhyan said.

Freeing Bout would send a message to others who could end up in trouble, said Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian security, over the summer: “The motherland will not forget you.”

Russia’s Foreign Ministry celebrated Bout’s release in a statement Thursday, saying the arms dealer had “returned to his homeland.”

“Thank God this exchange happened,” Maria Butina, a member of the Russian State Duma, told Russian Defense Ministry media outlet Zvezda. “I am happy. My heart sings. We don’t abandon our own people.”

Russian political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya, the founder of the R.Politik political analysis group, said in July that Putin wanted something deeper than political gain. “We have a special word in the Russian language for people like Bout: svoi. It means someone from ‘us.’ It’s someone who worked for the motherland, at least in [the government’s] eyes.”

Bout, who has said in interviews that he was born in Tajikistan in 1967 and studied languages at the Soviet Military Institute of Foreign Languages in Moscow. He has said he was pushed into studying Portuguese and later sent to Angola to work as a translator with the Soviet air force.

Military institutes were key recruitment grounds for the GRU, experts say. (The more refined KGB, meanwhile, stuck to universities.) And while Bout’s links to Sechin are unclear, both studied Portuguese and overlapped with the Soviet military in Mozambique.

Shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Bout, like many others who saw opportunity to profit amid chaos, became an entrepreneur. He used a small fleet of Soviet-made Antonov An-8 planes to set up an airfreight business and was apparently willing to take risks that others wouldn’t, flying to war zones and failed states.

Bout is also believed to have had access to something more valuable than planes: knowledge of the fate of the Soviet Union’s enormous caches of weapons.

“He was moving out weapons for a decade, from places like Ukraine,” said Douglas Farah, president of the national security firm IBI Consultants and the co-author of a book on Bout.

By 2000, Bout was one of the world’s most notorious traffickers. He was dubbed “the leading merchant of death” in Britain’s Parliament, and was named in U.N. reports for supplying heavy weaponry to a rebel movement in Angola as well as Liberia’s Charles Taylor, then supporting a deadly civil war in neighboring Sierra Leone.

The extent to which Bout was working for Russian military interests is debated. Farah said he believed that given the scale of military equipment being moved, such work may have been tacitly approved by the GRU.

Wolosky said Bout came to the Clinton administration’s attention because he was disrupting peace processes that the president was backing across Africa.

“In some cases, he was arming both sides of the conflict,” Wolosky said.

Amid increasing international pressure, including an Interpol arrest warrant issued in 2002, Bout returned to Moscow.

By many accounts, Bout at that time stepped back from his most intense work in the arms trade. He lived in Golitsyno, a small town outside Moscow. A friend visiting his home in 2008 later noted that it was filled with books as well as, surprisingly, a DVD of the 2005 Nicolas Cage film “Lord of War,” which was reportedly inspired by Bout’s life.

Unfortunately for him, that guest — former South African intelligence agent Andrew Smulian — was working for the DEA.

Bout was arrested later in Thailand, where he had been secretly recorded by the DEA organizing the purchase of 100 surface-to-air missiles, 20,000 AK-47 rifles, 20,000 grenades, 740 mortars, 350 sniper rifles, five tons of C-4 explosives and 10 million rounds of ammunition for people he thought were agents for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), an insurgent group.

The elaborate sting operation got around a key problem in the U.S. pursuit of Bout: He hadn’t broken any U.S. laws. In 2011, a federal court in New York found him guilty of a variety of charges, including conspiracy to kill U.S. nationals.

Russian officials have complained particularly about the aggressive and unusual targeting of Bout.

But the recording of Bout helped make the broader argument that he wasn’t a simple businessman. When the agents posing as buyers for the FARC said the weapons would be used against U.S. Air Force pilots working with the Colombian government, Bout could be heard telling them they had “the same enemy.”

“It’s not business,” he said. “It’s my fight.”


An earlier version of this article incorrectly spelled Lee Wolosky’s name. The article has been corrected.

Claire Parker in Washington and Natalia Abbakumova in Riga, Latvia, contributed to this report.

Brittney Griner released from Russian prison

The latest: WNBA star Brittney Griner landed in the United States around 5:30 a.m. ET Friday in San Antonio.

Prisoner trade deal: Her release was part of a prisoner swap for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. Nicknamed the “merchant of death,” Bout is a notorious arms dealer and has been in U.S. custody since his arrest in Thailand in 2008. It’s unclear why Moscow officials were so eager to bring him home.

Why was Griner detained?: Griner had been imprisoned in Russia since February, when she was accused of entering the country with vape cartridges that contained less than a gram of cannabis oil, which is illegal in the country.