Victor Bout may be the key to launching WNBA’s Brittney Griner

Victor Bout has always been the mystery genre inhabiting spy novels, a convicted arms dealer who has led a multibillion-dollar operation from aircraft fleets to supply weapons to notorious dictators, drug lords, and armies at war — and sometimes each other.

Butt, a mustachioed Russian national and former Soviet Army officer, was a equal-opportunity smuggler whose shipments are allegedly responsible for the deaths of thousands of Africans, Afghans and others.

And in the years before his arrest and imprisonment in 2008, first in Thailand and then in the United States, the “Dealer of Death” – a moniker given three decades ago by a British lawmaker – is believed to have become part of Russian President Vladimir Putin. inner circle.

Today, his possible release from US custody is at the center of a case Potentially risky trade with Moscow To edit a WNBA star Britney Greiner and another US citizen, both of whom Washington considers to be illegally detained in Russia.

Secretary of State Anthony J. Blinken said Wednesday that his government has high-priority negotiations for the release of Greiner and Paul WhelanA former US Marine was arrested in Moscow and convicted on dubious espionage charges in 2018.

“We put a substantive proposal on the table weeks ago to facilitate their release,” Blinken told reporters. “Our governments have communicated frequently and directly about this proposal.”

While Blinken has not publicly discussed the details of the offer, it has been widely reported for weeks that Bot was at the top of Moscow’s trading wishlist.

Blinken said he would discuss the exchange in a phone conversation with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov. That call came on Friday, marking the highest level of contact between the two countries’ governments since the Kremlin invaded Ukraine on February 24, launching a brutal war against the neighboring former Soviet republic that has claimed tens of thousands of lives.

However, Lavrov is not giving signs of hope, saying he will accept the US offer “whenever time permits,” in what officials in Washington see as a ploy to embarrass the Biden administration and take advantage of what Russia and the United States want. The administration seeks to isolate Russia diplomatically and economically as punishment for the war on Ukraine, but Russian officials hope to score points by showing that U.S. officials must deal with them.

After many years roaming the world as the world’s largest arms smuggler, Bout was finally entrapped by a stinging US government operation in 2008. Bout thought he was meeting in Bangkok with representatives of the left-wing Colombian guerrilla organization, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. FARC for selling helicopters and missile launchers. But undercover DEA agents were pretending to be guerrillas, fooling Bout, who was finally arrested.

Ultimately, he was extradited to the United States, tried and convicted in 2011 and sentenced to 25 years in prison for conspiracy to kill Americans, among other crimes. He was held in a medium security federal prison in Illinois.

Bot has always maintained that he is just an entrepreneur. According to US prosecutors, his clients included dictators such as the late Libyan Muammar Gaddafi and Charles Taylor, the former Liberian president who was convicted in The Hague in 2012 of war crimes including murder and rape. Other agents include the Northern Alliance of Afghanistan, which fought the Taliban in the late 1990s. Later, he worked with the Taliban.

WNBA star Britney Grenier in a Moscow courtroom prior to a hearing earlier this week.

(Alexander Zemlianchenko/The Associated Press)

a Profile 2002 The Los Angeles Times quoted a former US official as describing him as “Donald Trump or Bill Gates” involved in arms smuggling.

Stephen Brown, a former Times reporter who was part of the team that wrote and wrote that story, said the Russian had succeeded where no one else had succeeded in picking up pieces of the collapsing Soviet Union, no longer getting weapons from many Eastern European countries. Exclusively loyal to Moscow, and then invest it in big business. Bot made billions of dollars in the process.

Brown said Bout has assembled a fleet of about 60 cargo planes stationed at airports from the Persian Gulf to Europe and Texas, fanning the flames of civil wars, particularly in Africa.

Brown, who co-wrote with Douglas Farah’s 2007 book The Merchant of Death: Money, Guns, Airplanes, and the Man Who Makes War Possible, was among the first to write on the bot.

The question now for Blinken and the Biden administration is how much damage PR might do when someone is released to Bout’s reputation. It wouldn’t be the first time that the United States had traded prisoners with an opponent—almost all administrations in recent history have faced a similar test. But few of those released are as notorious as Bout with blood on their hands.

“It’s always a balance that you have to strike … a factor in how you think you’re going to proceed with a particular negotiation,” John F. Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said on CNN this week.

The government should weigh the national security risks in releasing a terrorist suspect or criminal from its custody; The likelihood that this person will turn around and attack the United States or its allies, and whether trade provides an incentive for other bad actors to take Americans hostage.

On the other side are humanitarian concerns, including the conditions under which an American is detained and treated, and whether it can be used as a political tool.

The pressure for the release of Griner—a sports star and lesbian woman of color—was intense. Grenier was arrested at Moscow airport and accused of carrying hemp oil In her luggage – a product that has been criminalized in many US states.

Greiner pleaded guilty, and Her trial is underway. Its Russian lawyers say Moscow is unlikely to consider a trade-off until the trial is over.

Michael McFaul, who served as the US ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014 and is now at Stanford University, said he would prefer releasing Bout but would add at least one more US citizen to the deal: Mark Fogel, a teacher who was sentenced to 14 years in prison. accused of smuggling marijuana.

“I applaud SecBlinken and StateDept’s efforts to bring Britney Greiner and Paul Whelan home even if it means extraditing Victor Bout,” McFaul wrote on Twitter, correcting a misspelling of Griner’s first name. “I am in favor of the swap. I only wish they would include Mark Vogel in the deal.”

“Bout is a real criminal,” McFaul said. “he is [is] He deserves to free 3 innocent Americans.”

Writer Brown agrees.

“I’m not a fan of letting this guy go, but there’s a history of when agendas converge, they do,” he said.

And as recently as April, a former US Marine, Trevor ReidReleased from a Russian prison in a trade for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot who served 11 years of a 20-year federal sentence for conspiracy to smuggle cocaine into the United States, Reed was convicted of what US diplomats described as “laughable” three years ago.