Release May Be a Reward for Viktor Bout Keeping 'His Cool'

Arms dealer gave US no information, and his release could be his reward, analysts say
By Bob Cronin,  Newser Staff
Posted Dec 8, 2022 3:02 PM CST
Release May Be a Reward for Viktor Bout Keeping 'His Cool'
Viktor Bout gestures as he is taken to a van to be taken back to prison at a criminal court in Bangkok, Thailand, in August 2009.   (AP Photo/Apichart Weerawong, File)

Russia had made clear that the release of arms dealer Viktor Bout was important to the government. In July, his US lawyer decreed that "no Americans will be exchanged unless Viktor Bout is sent home." It's not entirely clear why his release—achieved Thursday in a deal that freed American Brittney Griner—meant so much to Russia, the Washington Post reports. At CNN, Nick Paton Walsh articulates one long-running question: "How can one man be so valuable to Moscow they spend decades seeking his release at whatever level they can, and also be just an innocent and unfortunate global pilot and tradesman, as he has claimed?" Analysts have assumed it had to do with who and what Bout knows, but the US government hasn't been sure either.

Asked in July why the Kremlin is so concerned with Bout's return, CIA Director William Burns answered, "That's a good question, because Viktor Bout's a creep." His work is infamous. Britain's Parliament called the arms dealer the world's "leading merchant of death." Years in a cell since his arrest in 2008 apparently didn't drive Bout to give anything up, and his freedom might be his reward from his country. He insisted all along that he was innocent of the charges he was convicted of, including conspiring to kill Americans, dealing anti-aircraft missiles, and providing material support to a terrorist organization, per CNN. "He kept his cool in prison, never exposed anything to the Americans, as far as I can tell," a Russian journalist said.

US intelligence officials said Bout had to have close ties to Russian military intelligence, though he gave no indication of that. "The Russian government is eager to retrieve him so that it stays that way," a Harvard University analyst said. There's another classic propaganda/morale reason for wanting Bout back: to send the message that "the motherland will not forget you," another expert on Russia said. Walsh expands: "This is a man who many ordinary Russians may have heard of, and he certainly is of mythological importance to the Russian elite. He is not someone Moscow would ... 'leave behind.'" (More Viktor Bout stories.)

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