February 3, 2023

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Russia hails release of Viktor Bout as Kremlin victory

He is known in the West as a convicted illegal arms dealer, “dealer of death,” who helped fuel wars around the world. But in Russia this week, Viktor Bout was received at home as some sort of hero, or at least an innocent victim of American politics.

The Russian government, its allies and the adamantly pro-Kremlin media welcomed the United States’ release of Mr. Bout, 55, in exchange for American basketball star Brittney Griner, claiming that it meant President Vladimir V. Putin had defeated President Biden.

It was the rare development they could use as a victory for Mr Putin in a war against Ukraine and a showdown with the West that went badly for Russia. And it came after years of Russian news media and officials repeatedly calling Mr Bout’s case a monstrous injustice and a major diplomatic nuisance.

“Everyone will forget about Griner tomorrow,” wrote Yevgeny Popov, co-host of a news program on a state media channel and a member of Russia’s parliament, on the Telegram app on Thursday. “Bout’s life is just beginning.”

As he stepped off the plane taking him home after nearly 15 years in prison, Mr Bout was greeted by his wife, his mother and a camera crew from another state broadcaster. He was interviewed by a third state news agency.

The US basketball star had been jailed in Russia since February for smuggling hash oil.

Fear turns to relief: Brittney Griner’s supporters watched in dismay as her situation seemed to take a turn for the worse over the summer. Now they are celebrating their release. The Russian Playbook: With the arrest of Ms. Griner, the Kremlin has armed Pain to get the United States to extradite a convicted arms dealer. Can the same tactics work in the war in Ukraine? A Test of Women’s Sports: The release was a victory for WNBA players and fans who angrily pushed for it. But the athlete’s plight also highlighted gender inequalities in sport.

What none of the reactions fully explained was why Mr. Bout, described by Russia as a mere businessman running a small air freight company, was so important to the Kremlin for so many years. There has long been speculation that he worked for a Russian spy agency, that his arms deals were for Kremlin purposes, that he had personal ties to senior government officials, or a combination of such factors – all of which he has consistently denied.

Maria Butina, who spent more than a year in prison in the United States for being an unregistered agent of Russia, conducted the first interview with him after his release for Outlet RT. Ms Butina, now a Russian lawmaker, called the exchange “an American surrender” and inquired about the high-level interest in his case.

“I don’t think I’m of any importance in Russian politics,” Mr. Bout replied. He added, “We don’t give up our own, right?”

But Russia’s Foreign Ministry said it had been inundated with congratulations on his release, noting how often the Kremlin had called for his release. Government Human Rights Commissioner Tatyana Moskalkova said: “I think everyone who has followed the ordeal of this wonderful human being who has become a victim of US allegations is now filled with joy,” reported Russia’s Tass news agency.

In the RT interview, Mr. Bout echoed Mr. Putin by describing Russia as a victim of Western machinations. “The West thinks they didn’t get us done in 1990 when the Soviet Union started to collapse,” he said. “They think they can destroy us again and split Russia into many parts.”

But he has not fully parroted the Kremlin’s script, dodging insinuations that Mr. Biden is weak and Americans are Russophobic.

Mr Bout was once a Soviet military officer and translator, but Western governments and human rights groups say he was one of the world’s top arms dealers in the 1990s and 2000s, defying international sanctions to sell to factions in many conflicts, particularly in Africa . The 2005 film Lord of War, starring Nicolas Cage, was loosely based on him.

In March 2008, US agents arrested Mr. Bout in a secret operation in Bangkok posing as a Colombian guerrilla intent on buying weapons, including anti-aircraft missiles, which they said were being used to kill American pilots. Despite persistent Russian objections, Thailand eventually agreed to extradite him to the United States for trial.

In 2011, he was convicted in New York of conspiracy to murder American citizens, conspiracy to support a foreign terrorist organization, and conspiracy to acquire and export illegal weapons. He was sentenced to 25 years in federal prison.

At the time, Russia’s Foreign Ministry condemned the court as “clearly carrying out a political mandate,” aided by “the smear campaign unleashed by the American media.”

Were it not for Mr. Biden’s intervention to secure Ms. Griner’s freedom, Mr. Bout would have been ineligible for release for another seven years.