A Russian court sentenced American basketball player Brittney Griner to nine and a half years in prison on drug charges Thursday morning, renewing rumors that the Biden administration might trade Russian gun-running supervillain Viktor Bout — and perhaps even other high-value prisoners demanded by Moscow — in exchange for Griner’s freedom.
The Biden administration reportedly floated the idea of trading Bout for Griner and Paul Whelan, a long-imprisoned former U.S. Marine, last week through back channels. The Kremlin would not officially confirm the offer was made, while the White House played coy about whether Bout was part of the offer, saying only that President Joe Biden was directly involved in crafting the prisoner exchange proposal.
Criticism of the proposal was immediate and intense, since Viktor Bout clearly belongs in prison and remains one of the most dangerous criminals in the world. Among other objections, critics wondered why Whelan has been left to rot in a Russian prison since he was convicted on dubious “espionage” charges in 2018, but was suddenly included as a sweetener to make Biden’s offer of Bout for Griner seem less absurd.
The White House apparently modeled its Bout-Griner trade offer on the surprise April 2022 deal that secured the freedom of another former U.S. Marine, Trevor Reed, in exchange for convicted Russian drug trafficker Konstantin Yaroshenko.
Like Griner, Reed was handed a ridiculously disproportionate nine-year prison sentence for a minor offense, in his case getting drunk and assaulting a police officer. Biden mentioned Whelan as a potential future prisoner swap when announcing the Reed deal, prompting Whelan’s family to wonder why he was not included in April.
Yaroshenko is a criminal, but Bout is a much bigger fish. Bout’s real-life exploits are actually more unbelievable than the movie loosely based on his life, the 2005 Nicolas Cage film Lord of War.
Nicknamed the “Merchant of Death,” Bout is a flamboyant arms dealer in his mid-50s with Russian military training. He became a billionaire by raiding the armories of the collapsing Soviet Union in the early 90s and using old Soviet cargo planes to transport his black-market weapons to conflict zones around the world.
Bout’s criminal genius has been hailed by every international law enforcement agency that went after him. He was smart enough to mix his weapons shipments with more legitimate cargoes, posturing as a humanitarian who just wanted to sell cheap food to starving Africans. Meanwhile, he was selling guns to every bad actor from al-Qaeda and Hezbollah, to both the Taliban and its enemies in Afghanistan.
Bout was bagged in Thailand in 2008 while trying to sell weapons to Colombian terrorists who were actually CIA agents in disguise. He was not just selling his murderous Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) customers a few pistols — the deal included “800 surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), 30,000 AK-47 firearms, 10 million rounds of ammunition, five tons of C-4 plastic explosives, ‘ultralight’ airplanes outfitted with grenade launchers and unmanned aerial vehicles.”
“As the evidence at trial showed, Viktor Bout was ready to sell a weapons arsenal that would be the envy of some small countries. He aimed to sell those weapons to terrorists for the purpose of killing Americans. With today’s swift verdict, justice has been done and a very dangerous man will be behind bars,” then-U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara said after Bout’s 2011 conviction.
The U.S. government’s charges against Bout included “conspiracy to kill United States nationals, conspiracy to kill officers and employers of the United States, conspiracy to acquire and use anti-aircraft missiles and conspiracy to provide material support and resources to a foreign terrorist organisation.”
Bout made it clear to the undercover CIA operatives who arrested him that he understood his weapons would be used to kill Americans in Colombia.
“We have the same enemy,” he told the ersatz FARC terrorists, boasting that he had been fighting the United States for the past “ten to fifteen years.”
Bout is currently about halfway through the 25-year prison sentence he received in 2011. The Russian government has demanded his release throughout that time, fueling suspicions that he was not just a renegade arms dealer making a fortune by selling off the discarded fangs and claws of the defunct Soviet Union, but an active agent of Russian military intelligence.
It would seem politically awkward for Biden and his Democrat Party — so loudly obsessed with getting “weapons of war” off the streets, so determined to pump out one theatrical gun control bill after another — to spring for the release of the world’s worst arms dealer, a man who really has sold bona fide “weapons of war” to trigger-happy terrorists and crooks.
Critics of the trade also worry that Biden will declare open season on American hostages by paying so lavishly to get Griner back. Russian leader Vladimir Putin would have every incentive to grab more Americans to use as bargaining chips.
In a world where a politically-correct basketball player busted on petty drug charges fetches the world’s worst arms dealer in trade, the Russian hostage industry would boom so much that Bout would probably get into it.
The Russians are determined to make the situation as awkward as possible. The Kremlin spent last week making it look like Secretary of State Antony Blinken was begging them to take Bout for Griner.
The White House seemed to back away from the Bout deal last week, but Griner’s sentencing put it back on the table. On Friday, Blinken said Russia was “prepared to engage” on a swap for Griner, and the Biden State Department would be eagerly “pursuing that.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov decided to slap Blinken and Biden around a little, haughtily warning them not to “resort to public diplomacy.”
“We are ready to discuss this topic, but within the framework of the channel that was agreed upon by presidents Putin and Biden,” Lavrov sniffed, tossing aside White House complaints that the Kremlin was waiting too long to make a deal.
The Russians said they were only prepared to begin discussing a swap now that Griner has been sentenced in a Russian court. Prior to the sentencing this week, they said they would only agree to a “two-for-two” swap, in which they get two Russians in trade for Griner and Whelan. The most likely sweetener Putin would demand is Russian spy Vadim Krasikov, currently serving time in Germany for murder. This would be an absolute humiliation for the Biden White House, whether the Germans agreed to let Krasnikov go or not.
Paul Whelan’s family expressed fears on Wednesday that Biden will drop him from the deal rather than agree to Moscow’s demands, perhaps settling for a straight trade of Bout for Griner.
“Whether through Russia’s bad faith or the U.S.’s bad hand, Paul may be left behind again,” Whelan’s twin brother David said in a letter to reporters.
“There have been reports that the Russian government is concerned about the reciprocity of the offer. This might mean that they seek an additional concession from the U.S. government. Or it might mean they are willing to relinquish one fewer concession themselves,” David Whelan said.