Who Is Viktor Bout and Why Did Russia Want Him So Badly? Details On Brittney Griner In Prisoner Swap

Russia has released WNBA star Brittney Griner in prisoner swap – Who was she ‘traded’ for? Details about Viktor Bout.

WNBA star Brittney Griner was arrested in February 2022 at a Russian airport outside Moscow. The 31-year-old athlete’s arrest occurred amid allegations that she smuggled a vape cartridge into Russia. Since then, she has spent months fighting her drug possession charges in court.

In August 2022, a Russian court sentenced her to nine years in a Russian penal colony after being found guilty of drug possession. However, Brittney will no longer have to serve her sentence — why is that? Keep reading to find out.

Brittney Griner attending a GLAAD event.
Brittney Griner attending a GLAAD event.

Brittney Griner has been released from a Russian penal colony.

For those unaware, the Biden administration has been strongly negotiating the release of Brittney Griner from a Russian penal colony. Thankfully, we can report that on Dec. 8, 2022, Brittney was freed in a prisoner swap for convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout. The exchange occurred on Thursday in the United Arab Emirates, according to CBS News.

The outlet also noted that President Biden spoke with Brittney by phone from the Oval Office. He was joined by Brittney’s wife Cherelle, Vice President Kamala Harris, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

“She is safe, she is on a plane, she is on her way home,” Biden said from the White House on Thursday morning. “She will soon be back in the arms of her loved ones, and she should have been there all along.”

Biden added, “This is a day we’ve worked toward for a long time. We never stopped pushing for her release. It took painstaking and intense negotiations, and I want to thank all the hardworking public servants across my administration who worked tirelessly to secure her release.”

Cherelle also spoke at the White House, thanking several people who helped ensure her wife’s release. “Today my family is whole,” she said, per ESPNAs of this writing, Brittney is on her way to San Antonio for a medical evaluation, per standard procedure for freed U.S. prisoners. Cherelle will meet her there, an administration official told CBS News.

As many celebrate Brittney’s release on social media, others are deeply concerned about U.S. Marine veteran Paul Whelan. He’s been in Russian custody since 2018 when he was sentenced to 16 years in prison on espionage charges.

During his address at the White House on Dec. 8, 2022, Biden acknowledged that Paul’s family must “have such mixed emotions” about Brittney’s release. He said, “This was not a choice of which American to bring home. Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul’s case differently than Brittney’s. And while we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul’s release, we are not giving up. We will never give up.”

Cherelle Griner also announced that she and Brittney “will remain committed to the work of getting every American home, including Paul [Whelan], whose family is in our hearts today as we celebrate [Brittney] being home.”

According to Fox News producer Nick Kalman, Paul’s family made an official statement celebrating Brittney’s release: “There is no greater success than for a wrongful detainee to be freed and for them to go home. The Biden Admin made the right decision to bring Ms. Griner home, and to make the deal that was possible, rather than waiting for one that wasn’t going to .”

He later tweeted that Paul was informed of Brittney’s release by a senior Biden administration official.

Viktor Bout was traded from U.S.A for Brittney Griner in Russia

Who is Viktor Bout and what did he do?

Born on January 13, 1967 (real named Viktor Anatolyevich Bout) is a Russian arms dealer. An entrepreneur and former Soviet military translator, he used his multiple companies to smuggle weapons since the collapse of the Soviet Union from Eastern Europe to Africa and the Middle East during the 1990s and early 2000s. 

Bout gained the nicknames the Merchant of Death and Sanctions Buster after British government minister Peter Hain read a report to the United Nations in 2003 on Bout’s wide-reaching operations, extensive clientele, and willingness to bypass embargoes.

In a U.S. sting operation, Bout was arrested on 6 March 2008 in Thailand on terrorism charges by the Royal Thai Police in cooperation with American authorities and Interpol. The U.S. Ambassador to Thailand Eric G. John requested his extradition under the Extradition Act with Thailand, which was eventually mandated by the Thai High Court in August 2010. Bout was accused of intending to sell arms to a U.S. DEA informer pretending to represent the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) for use against U.S. forces in Colombia, but denied the charges and predicted an acquittal.

On 2 November 2011, Bout was convicted by a jury in a Manhattan federal court of conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens and officials, delivery of anti-aircraft missiles, and providing aid to a terrorist organization, and was sentenced to the minimum 25 years’ imprisonment because the crime was due to the sting operation. From June 2012 until December 2022, Bout was held at the United States Penitentiary, Marion, before being released in a prisoner exchange for U.S. basketball player Brittney Griner, who was arrested in February 2022 at a Moscow airport for smuggling vaporizer cartridges containing under one gram of hashish oil, which is illegal in Russia.

Why does Russia want Viktor Bout?

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has stated that in addition to “trading” Griner for Bout, there is a proposal to include Paul Whelan in the deal. Whelan is a former U.S. Marine originally from Canada who was detained in Russia in December 2018 under espionage charges.

Viktor Bout earned the nickname “Merchant of Death” for his experience as an arms dealer. According to NPR, he “armed Charles Taylor in Liberia, Mobutu in Zaire and Savimbi in Angola. He armed the Taliban and Hezbollah, as well. … Bout often supplied arms to both sides in a conflict at the same time.” It’s also been said that Bout had supplied weapons to now-dead Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

If Bout’s story sounds familiar, it’s probably because Nicolas Cage played a character who was based on him in the flick Lord of War. So why was the real-life Bout sentenced to 25 years in prison? A press release from the U.S. Department of Justice says it was because of his part aiding a 2011 conspiracy that would result in the deaths of Americans in Colombia.

The release, which is from 2011, reads, “International arms dealer Viktor Bout was found guilty today of conspiring to sell millions of dollars worth of weapons to the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) — a designated foreign terrorist organization based in Colombia — to be used to kill Americans in Colombia, announced the Department of Justice.”

Aleksander Golts, a military analyst, stated that there are two plausible theories as to why Russia wants Bout back in Russia: “The first [option] is that Bout really does know something: His intrigues or his attempts to create intrigues with weaponry were based either on the support of some Russian state structures or of some highly placed people.”

In other words, Bout could have been acting in the interest of Russian officials. According to Golts, this may ultimately prove problematic for anyone who’s had dealings with The Merchant of Death. Again, this is a theory, but seeing as Bout’s weaponry has been tied to numerous global conflicts in strategic areas of interest, it is possible.

Golts does say that a “second theory is possible” and goes on to state: “Bout [could not be] connected with anyone, but in Moscow, they have so little trust in the American judicial system and in the American government that they think that if they give Bout some long sentence, they will be able to force him to say something that would be discrediting to the Russian authorities.”

He added, “So that’s why they want to get him out of there as quickly as possible, which — by the way — I don’t think they have any chance of doing.”

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