The prisoner swap of American basketball star Brittney Griner for the infamous Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout could well be seen as an achievement for President Vladimir Putin: At the height of the war in Ukraine, the Russian dictator has brought back home an influential international criminal in return for a female sport star who was arrested unjustly in the first place. Griner, who played for a Russian club, was arrested in the airport in Moscow for possessing cannabis oil for personal use and was seen in the West as a having been taken hostage by the Russians – a sort of “star version” of Naama Issachar, an Israeli-American jailed in Russia over drug charges and later released.
But in reality, in terms of public awareness, the clear winner in the prisoner swap is the United States and President Joe Biden – while the Kremlin is forced to work hard to convince the Russian public of the importance of the deal. Bout, who was described on Thursday in the Russian media as a “Russian citizen,” “Russian” or “businessman” – is not known in his homeland. Even Russians who have heard of his existence certainly find it hard to identify with him or to find any reason to be happy about his release.
Russian media made sure to emphasize the efforts Russia made for the release of a man who was accused of selling illegal arms to Angola for years, as well as supplying chemical weapons to al-Qaeda.
In 2008, Bout was arrested in Bangkok as part of a complex operation, in which American agents pretended to be members of the Colombian FARC underground and enticed him to sell them ground launched antiaircraft missiles. After spending about two years in prison in Thailand, and after an extradition battle between the United States and Russia – in the Bout was transferred to the United States. For this staged deal, Bout was sentenced in 2012 to 25 years in prison. He has already served 14 years of his sentence – more than half.
According to a report on Radio Liberty, the United States had the opportunity to arrest Bout in the early 2000s, but preferred to learn more about “Bout’s secret empire.” One can assume that since he was captured, the United States received all the information it needed, and the 14 years he spent in prison have made Bout irrelevant in practical and intelligence terms.
The United States did not manage to rescue another of its citizens, former Marine Paul Whelan, who was arrested by the Russians in 2018 for spying. Nevertheless, this "one for one" deal in which an admired athlete – a Black Lesbian woman – is being freed as homophobic legislation is on the rise in Russia, in exchange for a patently unsympathetic arms dealer whose symbolic value for Russia is not the least bit clear, is an obvious media victory for Biden.
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The picture of Biden speaking with Griner for the first time, as she stands next to her wife Cherelle, has been seen all over the world. Meanwhile, the Russian media struggles to find any pictures of Bout apart from the one of him in a cage in a Thai prison in 2008.
Russia’s attitude toward prisoners, which is traditionally one of shame and concealment, has led to it to be seen as the loser in every prisoner exchange deal. Such was the atmosphere in September when soldiers from the Ukrainian Azov Brigade were returned from a Russian prison suffering from undernourishment and disease, and during the highly publicized release of Naama Issachar. In retrospect, not transferring the Alexander compound in Jerusalem to Russia to this day only strengthens this feeling.