(CNN) — It’s the most unequal trade at the most unlikely time, but perhaps the current intense pressure is why the trade of an American basketball star for a Russian arms dealer just happened.
At first glance, Brittney Griner and Viktor Bout are accused of ridiculously different crimes. Griner was sentenced to prison in a Russian penal colony for possession of a single gram of cannabis oil. Bout is reportedly the most prolific arms dealer in decades, fueling conflicts in Africa and beyond. And specifically, a US court convicted him of conspiring to murder Americans.
But circumstances and political pressure from both sides reversed this imbalance. Based on his claims of innocence and his brazen use as a geopolitical pawn on the eve of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Griner rose to prominence for the Americans that forced the Biden administration to begin negotiations with the Kremlin at the worst moment in history. US-Russian relations since at least the end of the Cold War.
The enormous importance of Bout for Russia has always been the biggest enigma. How can a man be so valuable to Moscow, who spend decades seeking his liberation at whatever level they can, and also just be an innocent, hapless pilot and world trader, as he has claimed? Who is this guy who denies everything?
I interviewed Bout in 2009 after months of negotiations while incarcerated in Bangkok. He is a chatty, charming polyglot and can chat animatedly about the list of political figures with whom he has personal relationships on a global scale.
I have seen videos of Bout in the Congo and throughout Africa, where he was quite close to the conflicts in the area.
Multiple analysts and UN investigations accuse him of proliferating small arms on that continent during the 1990s and early 2000s, something he denies. He was even accused of having armed al Qaeda, which he also denied. There were few things he didn’t accuse him of and few he didn’t deny. He became a kind of “sack man”, and the center of a film starring Nicolas Cage called “Lord of War”.
That is the story of his career: the reputation as the man who came to be known as the “Merchant of Death.” What he spent 14 years in prison for, and what he was extradited to the United States for, was a complex operation by the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), in which he was tricked into agreeing to supply US agents posing as Colombian terrorists with weapons, weapons intended in the operation to kill Americans. It is strange that, after all the crimes Bout was accused of, the only one he was jailed for was a conspiracy, a plot, and not an act.
It is true that he is a pilot and businessman. He was a military translator with a Soviet past. But there are allegations that he worked in Russian intelligence and became an asset to them in supplying weapons around the world to bolster Moscow’s geopolitical goals. It has also been suggested that he worked alongside senior Russian officials who are now close to President Vladimir Putin. This could explain the intensity with which the Americans were looking for him. He was never a nobody.
There was always a curious mystique about Bout and his environment. Yes, he was innocent of everything, she said. But also, yes, he had had an interesting life. There was always the wink that is usually made when someone knows that there is more to a story than what is openly said.
The biggest surprise now is how this exchange came about during the Russian invasion and brutalization of Ukraine. He says two things: that Moscow and Washington are capable of doing business even as Russian bombs kill innocent Ukrainian civilians, and the US provides Ukraine with weapons that are killing Russian soldiers; and that the nuclear powers can work on other thorny issues while the bullets fly. This is good for all the inhabitants of the planet. It means that some cool heads prevail and basic interests take precedence.
It also shows some weakness on Putin’s part. At a time when he is flaunting his nuclear rhetoric against the West, he too agrees to a high-level diplomatic deal to win back a figure of enormous and complex importance to the Russian elite, the intelligence community and national pride. .
This is a man many ordinary Russians may have heard of, and he certainly has mythological significance to the Russian elite. He is not someone that Moscow — to paraphrase the ugly slogan of the Russian invasion in which hundreds of corpses of soldiers have been strewn across the battlefield — would “leave behind.”
These are the same people Putin wants to ingratiate himself with now. The deal may also have been more self-serving: many believe that when Bout served in Africa, he had close ties to members of the Russian elite now close to Putin (although Bout has also denied this). Was this why the United States spent so much time and money stopping him? Did they think I would talk? We may never know.
Yes, it is a victory for Putin, but at the cost of exposing his weakness and his need to keep the military elite on whom he depends happy.