Shortly after his 2011 conviction for conspiring to kill US citizens, Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout delivered a message of defiance through his lawyer, even though he faced decades in prison.
Mr. Bout, his lawyer said, “believes this is not the end”.
More than a decade later, Mr. Bout, 55, may be on the verge of a fresh start, even though he has served less than half of his 25-year prison sentence.
The United States, trying to negotiate the release of two Americans imprisoned in Russia – basketball star Brittney Griner and a former Marine, Paul Whelan – offered to exchange them last month for Mr. Bout, according to a person briefed on the negotiations. .
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said Wednesday that the United States had made “a substantial proposal” to the Kremlin, but declined to discuss details of a possible swap and did not name Mr. Bout. He said he intended to raise the issue in the coming days with his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei V. Lavrov.
Russian officials have been pushing for Mr. Bout’s return since his 2011 conviction by a New York jury on four counts, including conspiracy to kill US citizens. Prosecutors said he agreed to sell anti-aircraft weapons to anti-drug informants who posed as arms buyers for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
Then-Attorney General Eric Holder called Mr Bout (pronounced “Boot”) “one of the most prolific arms dealers in the world”. Mr. Bout rose to fame among US intelligence officials, earning the nickname “dealer of death” as he evaded capture for years. His exploits helped inspire a 2005 film, “Lord of War,” which starred Nicolas Cage as a character inspired by Mr. Bout.
Now he is probably the most high-profile Russian detained by the United States and the prisoner whom Russia has campaigned most vehemently for his return. If he is sent back to Russia, it will likely reignite the debate over the wisdom of engaging in prisoner swaps for Americans the US considers ‘wrongfully detained’ – as is the case with Ms Griner and Mr. Whelan.
In interviews with reporters, Mr. Bout has repeatedly denied accusations that he worked for Russian intelligence agencies. But Mark Galeotti, an expert in Russia’s security services, said there were strong signs – Mr Bout’s education, his social and professional networks and his logistical skills – that he is a member, or at least was in close cooperation with, the Russian army. intelligence agency known as the GRU
“That’s also the opinion of US and other authorities – and it explains why Russia has campaigned so assiduously to get it back,” said Mr. Galeotti, senior lecturer on Russia and transnational crime at University College London. “All countries try to get their citizens out of difficult jurisdictions, but clearly getting Viktor Bout back has been a particular priority for the Russians.”
What to know about Brittney Griner’s detention in Russia
Mr. Bout grew up in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, until he was drafted into the Soviet army at the age of 18. After a term in the army, he studied Portuguese at the Military Institute of Foreign Languages in Moscow, a common entrance to Russian intelligence. services, and eventually became an officer in the Air Force.
The Soviet Union collapsed shortly after Mr. Bout left the military. As the Russian economy collapsed and criminal groups flourished, he moved to the United Arab Emirates and started a cargo company that grew to a fleet of 60 planes.
As military supplies from former Soviet states leaked onto the black market, his shipping empire delivered weapons to rebels, militants and terrorists around the world, prosecutors said. In the new era of privatization in Russia, arms traffickers have been able to use old Soviet-era social, military and business networks, and also develop shell companies to conceal deals.
Mr. Bout was accused of selling weapons to al-Qaeda, the Taliban and militants in Rwanda. According to several investigations and indictment by the United States, he and his associates flouted arms embargoes in Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Algeria, where he sold arms to government forces and rebels fighting them.
His ability to avoid capture added to his notoriety among Western intelligence officials. In 1995, the Taliban shot down one of its planes in Afghanistan, seized the cargo and imprisoned the crew. Mr. Bout and Russian officials managed to get the crew out of the country: in 2003 he told the New York Times Magazine “they were extracted” and in 2012, The New Yorker reported, he said that they had simply escaped.
U.S. authorities eventually caught up with him in Bangkok in 2008. Mr. Bout met with undercover Drug Enforcement Administration agents who he said represented rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, whom the United States believed to be a terrorist organization until last year.
When told by potential buyers the weapons could be used to kill American pilots, Mr. Bout replied, “We have the same enemy,” prosecutors said.
Thai authorities arrested him on the spot. He was extradited to the United States in 2010 and two years later was sentenced to 25 years.
In the years that followed, Russian authorities maintained Mr. Bout’s innocence and raised him as a possible exchange for other high-level American and Ukrainian detainees held by Russia. He was at the center of a Russian campaign, “we do not abandon ours”, which called his arrest unjust and politically motivated.
The fate of Brittney Griner in Russia
The American basketball star endured months in a Russian prison for smuggling hash oil into the country.
Mr. Bout’s exchange was a priority for Russia “a matter of honor and a matter of ruthless pragmatism”, said Mr. Galeotti, the Russia expert.
Russian intelligence agencies “have inherited a culture from the former Soviet KGB that clearly tells its own agents – ‘we’ll get you back.’ That kind of loyalty to yours is really important when you expect people to potentially endanger.
On Wednesday evening, Mr. Bout’s wife, Alla, told Russian news agency RIA Novosti that neither she nor her husband had heard of his possible swap.
“We spoke on the phone yesterday,” she said, according to the news agency. “We assume of course that such negotiations can take place, but we don’t talk about it, because neither he nor I have any information.”
Oleg Morozov, a member of the Russian parliament, the Duma, applauded the possibility of Mr. Bout’s return.
“Viktor Bout was illegally convicted and has been waiting for help from the Russian state for many years,” he told Ria Novosti. “If there is an opportunity to secure his release, then, in my opinion, that chance should be used.”
It’s unclear whether Mr. Bout’s eventual return would further encourage Russia to arrest potential Westerners for trade; Moscow denies allegations that it intentionally arrested people to force a swap.
“The very real risk with this deal is that it will incentivize foreign powers to get Americans off the streets and into jail,” said Lee Wolosky, a former Clinton administration National Security Council official. , who led the initial U.S. effort. to capture Mr. Bout. “And the more important these American travelers, the better.”
Andrei Soldatov, Russian journalist and security services expert, senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, said that while Mr. Bout was the most high-profile Russian prisoner in the United States, there were many more Russians in the US prisons, especially for hacking.
The Russian authorities, Mr. Soldatov said, learned how to “create hostage banks” in the early 2000s during a brutal war with the breakaway region of Chechnya, just after President Vladimir V Putin came to power.
“It was a lesson they never quite forgot,” Mr Soldatov said. Referring to Russian security agencies, he said: “It makes perfect sense, from their point of view, to do the same with the United States.”
Michael Crowley and Ivan Nechepurenko contributed report.