The ‘merchant of death’ returns to Russia in prisoner swap
International arms dealer Viktor Bout returned to Russia last week after 14 years in a U.S. jail. Bout has been a star of Russian propaganda throughout his incarceration. And his return home was an excellent illustration of the strange relationship between the Russian authorities, Russian propaganda and the Russians who wind up in foreign jails.
- Bout, a notorious arms dealer who supplied al-Qaeda and various drug cartels, was captured as part of a U.S. sting operation in Thailand in 2008. He was then extradited to the U.S. and sentenced to 25 years in jail. Since then, Bout has been a totem of Russian propaganda: the Russian Foreign Ministry regularly demanded his release and state-controlled RT’s editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan became his loudest supporter. Simonyan has spent a lot of time campaigning for Russian “political prisoners” in U.S. jails and RT hired Maria Butina as a columnist after she served time in the U.S. for illegal lobbying ahead of the 2016 presidential election.
- Simonyan was quick to celebrate Bout’s release, in particular because he was exchanged not for jailed ex-marine Paul Whelan, but for U.S. basketball star Britney Griner. “They wanted to swap Bout for Whelan, but they got Griner. Because, given a choice between a heroic spy, a decorated marine who suffered for his service to his country, and a drug-addicted black lesbian who suffered for vaping with dope, they made the obvious choice. That’s why we’ll win,” Simonyan said.
- It’s not exactly clear why Bout was so important to the Russian authorities. But a man who spent 15 years flogging stockpiles of Soviet weaponry around the world has to have good contacts in the Russian intelligence services. During his time in U.S. jail, Bout kept silent, apparently betraying no secrets.
- Russia’s concern over Bout contrasts sharply with the Kremlin’s usual indifference toward Russians in foreign jails. You don’t have to look far: in Belarus a journalist from the influential and slavishly pro-Russian Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper is on trial after winding up in prison in 2020 on a trumped-up charge of insulting Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. The fact that Lukashenko’s regime is totally dependent on Russia, and Komsomolskaya Pravda is reportedly Putin’s favorite newspaper, has not helped the journalist. Meanwhile, wartime prisoner exchanges with Ukraine usually unfold in starkly contrasting ways: returning Ukrainian prisoners of war feature in big televised ceremonies. But, in Russia, the authorities only recently started releasing videos of PoWs being met at the airport.
- Unsurprisingly, Bout’s first interview went to RT’s Maria Butina. The highlight of the recorded encounter released Sunday was Bout’s complaints about how he suffered from U.S. prison food, specifically burgers, “cooked to death” fries and chicken nuggets. If anybody in Russia’s jails watches RT, those comments might provoke outrage: 440,000 convicts in Russia can only dream of such food.
- And Bout has not waited long to nail his political colors to the mast: he announced Monday that he was joining the ultra-nationalist LDPR party. He’s not the only member of the party suspected of ties to Russian intelligence: Andrei Lugovoi, who is wanted by U.K. police for poisoning Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006, is a LDPR State Duma deputy.
Why the world should care
The story of Bout’s release and its portrayal in state media highlights the odd relationship between the government, its propaganda outlets and ordinary Russians. In this case, it’s particularly clear how the government and Russia’s propagandists live in their own worlds.