Russia wants Viktor Bout back, badly. The question is: why?

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At the US penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, in a special unit so restrictive that it is nicknamed “Little Guantanamo”, a broad-chested, mustachioed man called the “merchant of death” who speaks at least six languages ​​is serving . a 25-year tenure after building an arms-smuggling empire that spanned the globe.

His name is Viktor Bout. And his native Russia wants him home, badly. The big question: why?

Bout, 55, is the best-known arms dealer of his time, accused of profiting from weapons that fueled conflict in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

Who Is Viktor Bout, Russian Arms Dealer in Prisoner Swap Rumor?

This week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the United States had made Russia “a substantial offer” to secure the release of two Americans detained in Moscow, WNBA star Brittney Griner and consultant of security Paul Whelan. Russian officials have hinted that they expect a prisoner exchange.

There is no question that Bout would be the ultimate prize for Russian officials, who have protested his treatment since his 2008 arrest in Thailand following a Drug Enforcement Administration sting. Steve Zissou, Bout’s lawyer in New York, warned this month that “no American will be exchanged unless Viktor Bout is sent home.”

What is less clear, however, is exactly why Russia cares so much about Bout. when CIA Director William J. Burns was asked at this month’s Aspen Security Forum why Russia wants Bout, Burns replied: “That’s a good question, because Viktor Bout is a creep “.

Although Russia has complained that Bout was caught by the DEA, many US officials and analysts believe their anger is not about the merits of the case, but about Bout’s ties to military intelligence russian

US officials hope that public pressure will lead to the release of the Russian prisoners

“It’s clear that he had significant ties to Russian government circles,” said Lee Wolensky, a National Security Council official in the Clinton administration who led early efforts to tackle Bout’s network.

Although less famous than the KGB and its successor the FSB, Russia’s military intelligence agency, commonly known as the GRU, has a reputation for undertaking riskier and riskier actions. In recent years he has been accused of everything from hacking elections to murdering dissidents.

In addition, reports suggest that Bout may have close ties to Igor Sechin, a former deputy prime minister of Russia and an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Both Sechin and Bout served with the Soviet military in Africa during the 1980s.

Bout has denied such links with the GRU. He has also said that he does not know Sechin.

But that silence might be the point. The arms dealer refused to cooperate with US authorities, even as he sat for more than a decade, isolated and alone, in a cell thousands of kilometers from his home in Moscow. This silence could be rewarded.

“He kept calm in prison, never exposed anything to the Americans, as far as I can tell,” said Russian journalist Andrei Soldatov.

Simon Saradzhyan of Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs said Bout would never have been able to operate such a large smuggling business without government protection, but he never talked about it. “The Russian government is keen to get it back so that it stays that way,” Saradzhyan said.

Freeing Bout would send a message to others who might be in trouble, said Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian security: “The motherland will not forget you.”

“The Russians successfully brought [him] the comeback would be considered a triumph,” Galeotti said. “And let’s face it, at the moment the Kremlin is looking for triumphs.”

Russian political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of political analysis group R.Politik, said Putin wants something deeper than political gain. “We have a special word in the Russian language for people like Bout: ‘svoi’. It means someone from ‘us’. It is someone who worked for the motherland, at least in [the government’s] eyes.”

Bout, who has said in interviews that he was born in Tajikistan in 1967, studied languages ​​at the Soviet Military Institute of Foreign Languages ​​in Moscow. He said he was pushed to study Portuguese and then sent to Angola to work as a translator with the Soviet air force.

Military institutes were key recruiting grounds for the GRU (the more refined KGB, meanwhile, stuck to universities), experts say. And although his links to Sechin are unclear, both studied Portuguese and overlapped with the Soviet Army in Mozambique.

Shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Bout, like many others who saw an opportunity to profit amid the chaos, became an entrepreneur. He used a small fleet of Soviet-made Antonov An-8 planes to establish a freight business and was apparently willing to take risks that others would not, flying into war zones and failed states.

Bout is also believed to have access to something more valuable than the planes: knowledge of the fate of the Soviet Union’s huge weapons caches.

“He was getting weapons out for a decade, from places like Ukraine,” said Douglas Farah, president of national security firm IBI Consultants and co-author of a book on Bout.

In 2000, Bout was one of the most famous traffickers in the world. He was called “the leading merchant of death” in the British Parliament and named in UN reports for supplying heavy weaponry to a rebel movement in Angola, as well as to Charles Taylor of Liberia, who then supported a deadly civil war in neighboring Sierra Leone.

The extent to which Bout was working for Russian military interests is debated. Farah said he believed that given the scale of military equipment being moved, such work may have been tacitly approved by the GRU.

Wolensky said Bout came to the attention of the Clinton administration because he was disrupting the peace processes the president supported throughout Africa.

“In some cases, it was arming both sides of the conflict,” Wolensky said.

Amid mounting international pressure, including an Interpol arrest warrant issued in 2004, Bout returned to Moscow.

By many accounts, Bout at that time retired from his most intense work in the arms trade. He lived in Golitsyno, a small town outside Moscow. A friend who visited his home in 2008 later noted that it was filled with books and, surprisingly, a DVD of Nicolas Cage’s 2005 film Lord of War, which was inspired by the life from Bout.

Unfortunately for him, that guest, former South African intelligence agent Andrew Smulian, worked for the DEA.

Bout was later arrested in Thailand, where he had been secretly recorded by the DEA arranging the purchase of 100 surface-to-air missiles, 20,000 AK-47 rifles, 20,000 cluster grenades, 740 mortars, 350 sniper rifles, five tons of C-4 explosives and 10 million rounds for people he thought were agents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), an insurgent group.

The elaborate sting operation solved a key problem in the US search for Bout: he had broken no US laws. In 2011, a federal court in New York found him guilty of several charges, including conspiracy to kill US citizens.

Russian officials have particularly complained about Bout’s aggressiveness and unusual targeting.

But Bout’s recording helped make the larger argument that he was more than just a businessman. When agents posing as FARC buyers said the weapons would be used against US Air Force pilots working with the Colombian government, Bout was heard telling them they had “the same enemy “.

“It’s not a business,” he said. “It’s my fight.”

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