WASHINGTON — She is an American professional basketball star who is accused of having hash oil in her luggage.
He is a notorious Russian arms dealer known as the “Merchant of Death” who is serving a 25-year federal prison sentence for conspiracy to sell weapons to people who said they planned to kill Americans.
And the Kremlin seems interested in connecting their fates, in a possible deal with the Biden government that would free both.
The huge disparity between the cases of Brittney Griner and Viktor Bout highlights the extreme difficulty President Biden would face if he sought a prisoner exchange to free Ms Griner, the incarcerated WNBA player, from detention in Moscow. The Biden administration, reluctant to create an incentive for the arrest or kidnapping of Americans abroad, would have a hard time facilitating the release of an evil figure like Mr. Bolt to justify.
At the same time, Mr Biden is under pressure to release Ms Griner, who was arrested in February at an airport in the Moscow region and whom the State Department classified in May as “wrongly detained”. That reflects concerns that the Kremlin considers its influence in the tense confrontation between the United States and Russia over Ukraine. Last week, dozens of groups representing people of color, women and LGBTQ Americans sent letters urging Biden to “make a deal to get Brittney back home to America immediately and safely.”
The trial of Ms. Griner was to begin on Friday.
Mr Bout, 55, a former Soviet military officer who made a fortune in the global arms trade before being caught in a federal covert operation, could be the prize for any deal. Russian officials have pressed for Mr Bout’s case for years, and in recent weeks Russian media has directly linked his case with Ms Griner’s. Some, including the state-owned Tass news service, have even claimed talks are already underway with Washington for a possible exchange, something US officials will not confirm.
Steve Zissou, Mr. Bout’s New York-based attorney, said in an interview that Russian officials are pushing for the release of Mr. Bout, who was convicted in 2011 of offering weapons, including anti-aircraft missiles, to alleged federal agents. as members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. Mr Zissou said he met Anatoly I. Antonov, the Russian ambassador to the United States, in Washington in June and that Mr Antonov told him that the release of Mr Bout is a very high priority for the Russian government.
“It has been communicated very clearly to the US side that they must deal with Viktor Bout if they expect further prisoner exchanges,” said Mr. Zissou. “My sense of this is that no American goes home unless Viktor Bout is sent home with them.”
US officials have declined to substantiate that idea and will not discuss a possible deal to release Ms. Griner. In practice, the State Department dismisses questions about prisoner exchanges around the world and warns that they set a dangerous precedent.
“Using wrongful detention as a bargaining chip threatens the safety of anyone who travels, works and lives abroad,” the department’s spokesman, Ned Price, said recently.
Understanding the war between Russia and Ukraine better
Biden agreed to a prisoner exchange in April that saw Russia release Trevor Reed, a former US Marine from Texas who had been detained since 2019 on charges of assaulting two police officers. In return, the United States released Konstantin Yaroshenko, a pilot who was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2011 for drug smuggling. But White House officials stressed that Mr. Reed’s ill health made his case exceptional.
Many people have expressed their support for Ms. Griner, a star athlete and basketball icon. Less obvious is the Russian government’s solidarity with a titan of organized crime linked to terrorists and war criminals. In December, a government building in Moscow displayed two dozen pencil sketches of Mr. Bout and other artwork created from his cell at a federal penitentiary near Marion, Illinois.
By the time of his arrest in 2008, Mr. Bout (pronounced “boat”) so well known that an arms-trading character played by Nicolas Cage in the 2005 film “Lord of War” was based on his life.
Born in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, he attended a Russian military school and served as an officer of the Soviet Air Force.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Mr. Bout began to earn money moving cargo between continents. US officials say he quickly became one of the world’s largest arms dealers, transporting former Soviet military weapons in Ilyushin transport planes, with a particularly lucrative business in war-torn African countries such as Liberia and Sierra Leone. Mr Bout denies knowingly dealing in weapons.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the United States and European countries were convinced that Mr. Bout not only fueled death and misery, but also violated the United Nations arms embargoes. They were particularly alarmed by information suggesting he may have done business with the Afghan Taliban and even Al Qaeda, allegations he denies.
In the end, the United States tricked Mr. Bout into a trap. In 2008, a pair of Drug Enforcement Administration agents posing as members of Colombia’s leftist FARC rebel group met in Bangkok with Mr. Bout to purchase weapons including 30,000 AK-47 rifles, plastic explosives and surface-to-air missiles for use against The government of Colombia and the US military support the campaign against the FARC.
“Viktor Bout was ready to sell an arsenal of weapons that some small countries would envy,” Preet Bharara, then the US attorney for New York’s Southern District, said after his conviction. “He wanted to sell those weapons to terrorists for the purpose of killing Americans.”
The FARC’s official status as a foreign terrorist organization at the time meant that Mr. Bout received a mandatory federal minimum sentence of 25 years.
A former US official familiar with Mr Bout’s situation said the Russian government’s interest in his freedom seemed personal and that he has ties to powerful people close to President Vladimir V. Putin.
Another former US official pointed to a more fundamental reason: Mr Bout was arrested in Thailand and extradited from there to New York. Russian officials have complained about what they call the growing “practice being used by the US to actually track down our citizens abroad and arrest them in other countries,” such as Grigory Lukyantsev, the human rights commissioner for Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Foreign Affairs, in August said. the Russian news channel RT.
The first former US official said it was highly unlikely, given the magnitude of his crimes, that Mr Bout would be released in a deal for Ms Griner — even if, as some have speculated, the trade would include Paul Whelan, a former US Marine imprisoned in Moscow since December 2018 on charges of espionage. The former official said that in the past Russia has blocked the release of Mr. Bout had demanded in even more high-profile cases and had been resolutely rejected.
Both former officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to publicly discuss their knowledge of Mr Bout’s case.
Danielle Gilbert, an assistant professor of military and strategic studies at the US Air Force Academy who specializes in hostage diplomacy, agreed that releasing Mr. Bout would be a difficult political proposition. But she didn’t rule out the idea. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they at least consider the possibility,” she said, pointing out that she’s not speaking on behalf of the US government.
Mr. Bout has at least one advocate for his release in the United States: Shira A. Scheindlin, the judge who presided over his case. In an interview, Ms. Scheindlin said swapping Mr. Bout for Ms. Griner would be inappropriate, given the magnitude of his offense in relation to her alleged offense.
But she said a deal that also included Mr. Whelan was involved, even the scales might pick up. Mr Bout has already served 11 years in prison, she noted, saying that “in my opinion he was not a terrorist. He was a businessman.” Though she had to impose his mandatory 25-year prison sentence, she added: “I thought it was too high at the time.”
“So, since he served so long, I think the United States’ interest in punishing him has been satisfied,” she said, “and it wouldn’t be a bad comparison to send him back if we get these people back who are important.” for us.”
Even if the United States were open to such a deal, Mr Zissou said it would not be imminent. He said he believed Russia – which maintains that Ms Griner is rightly accused and not a political pawn – was determined to complete her trial before her release was negotiated. “And that will probably take a few months,” he said.