Russian Viktor Bout, alleged arms dealer (Photo by Nicolas Asfouri/AFP via Getty Images)

The art of the bad deal

How could the US have released Viktor Bout?

Artillery Row

Yesterday afternoon, professional Women’s NBA player Brittney Griner was released from the Russian penal colony, where she was expected to serve a nine-year sentence after airport workers found cannabis oil in her luggage. The sentence was intentionally cruel: Griner had pled guilty, but the sum total of her drug smuggling amounted to carrying vaporising cartridges that contained less than a gram of hashish oil. The timing of her ordeal coincided entirely with the sanctions levelled against Russia. It was clear from the start that Russia was using the basketball player as a political pawn against the United States. 

Viktor Bout, a 55 year old polyglot, had worked as a Soviet military translator before making a fortune in the capitalist free-for-all following the post-Soviet collapse — using military planes left abandoned on airfields (not to mention their out-of-work crew) to traffick any goods to any man. For the latter half of the 20th century, a number of entrepreneurial amoralists had trafficked and sold AK-47s and anti-aircraft missiles to war-torn third-world regions — but Bout had risen above the rest as the sole individual capable of trafficking not only to Afghanistan and the Congo but everywhere in between. Bout’s activities (and impact) were well-understood: one Foreign Office Minister had delivered a speech in the House of Commons that labelled him Africa’s “Merchant of Death”. At the end of the millennium, Viktor Bout had the honour of supplying both the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan and the Taliban — presumably hoping that neither would quite be able to knock the other out. 

It was not the only instance of Bout playing one side off against the other. On top of less-than-legal dealings to revolutionaries and the governments that sought to quell them, Bout moonlighted as a transporter of totally legitimate cargo, with sometimes schizophrenic results. In the years leading up to his arrest, Bout was simultaneously sanctioned by the US Treasury department whilst being paid millions by the Pentagon. Indeed, the arms trafficker would frequently find himself paid by the United Nations to ship peacekeepers into the very countries in which he had supplied arms to the warring factions — as he did during 1993’s tweely-named “Operation Restore Hope”. 

Bout had been extradited from Thailand in 2010 after the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents posed as Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC) agents seeking to buy missiles and rocket launchers. Found guilty of conspiracy to kill Americans and US officials, delivering anti-aircraft missiles and aiding a terrorist organisation, he was sentenced to a minimum of 25 years in prison, of which he has served less than half. He was never charged for the African arms dealings that earned him his true notoriety. 

The Biden administration itself had suggested the exchange

Any reader with a heart will be pleased to know that the White House has secured the release of Brittney Griner. Any reader with a brain will be agog to learn that they did so in exchange for freeing the Merchant of Death.

Barack Obama offered kudos to the president and his team for “the difficult diplomatic work involved to make it happen”. Pray, name one swap that could have been easier to produce? A guide leader for Milosevic? A sommelier for Tojo? A TV chef for Mengele? 

What a sense of accomplishment the White House must have felt for managing to organise such a difficult and beneficial swap! Brittney Griner was held on ludicrous trumped-up charges, with the sole aim of extracting as large a concession out of the White House as possible. She deserves to be free. But was that really the best possible deal that it could have organised?

Readers would be reasonable to suppose that the Russians had the Americans over the proverbial баррель — the Americans forced over the course of months to accept an unequal prisoner swap in a show of diplomatic humiliation. No. The Biden administration itself had suggested the exchange. American officials were well aware that Russia had continually sought to secure Bout’s freedom. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had supported him throughout American legal proceedings, declaring that he would see the arms dealer return to Russian soil before the end of his prison sentence. Russia had even offered Thailand heavily discounted oil and fighter jets in exchange for refusing America’s extradition request. 

America was in a powerful position: either it could sit on Bout for his full 25+ year sentence to punish the man and threaten any other individuals providing weapons to be used against its citizens, or it could bide its time, knowing it had an asset of great value to the Kremlin. With this swap, at this moment, America has secured the worst of both worlds. A man walks free after serving less than half of his sentence, and in exchange the USA receives a woman guilty of a negligible crime caught up in a geopolitical incident much bigger than she anticipated.

Neither rhyme nor reason appears to have gone into the making of the deal. The crimes were incomparable, operating in different stratospheres of severity. 

My complaints aren’t targeted at Ms. Griner and those around her who have lobbied for her freedom — they are targeted at the disproportion of the exchange. Any American government would naturally (and correctly) seek to repatriate any American imprisoned abroad on trumped up trivial offences — but should, when forced into a prisoner exchange, seek to exchange prisoners who had committed as close to equivalent crimes as possible. The Biden Administration should have sought to exchange Ms Griner for a prisoner of its own who ranked somewhere below “genocide purveyor”. Griner was of no threat to anyone, and everyone understood this. During one 2016 presidential debate, Donald Trump described the North American Free Trade Agreement as “the worst trade deal maybe ever signed anywhere” and that “nothing will ever top NAFTA”. This has topped NAFTA. 

Griner will pay for this imbalance for the rest of her life

Brittany Griner was put in an exceptionally cruel place by Russia, who sought to use her as a tool. For all of the self-congratulations, President Biden has also put her in an undeniably cruel situation: Griner will now be a focus of rage and merciless scrutinisation by a general public who understandably seek to understand not why she was freed, but why she was deemed an equivalent value of prisoner to the most notorious arms dealer of the 1990s. Griner will be made to pay for this imbalance for the rest of her life. A begrudging American media has already pored through her social media posts and delighted in old, flag-bashing interviews that have been highlighted and enjoyed across cable TV’s most aggressive talking heads. It isn’t Brittney Griner’s fault that this exchange was agreed.

Recriminations have already started. Paul Whelan, a retired marine, was detained in 2018 by Russian authorities alleging that he was staying in Moscow as part of an intelligence operation. Whelan maintains that he was there for a friend’s wedding. In an interview yesterday, with the fourth anniversary of his arrest coming up, he stated that whilst he was happy that Griner had been released, he was “greatly disappointed that more has not been done to secure my release”.

America has argued that Russia refused to negotiate his release. “This was not a situation where we had a choice of which American to bring home,” stated one official. “It was a choice between bringing home one particular American — Brittney Griner — or bringing home none.” Interesting news to Whelan, who had previously been informed that negotiations were, in fact, taking place.

His brother authored a statement upon hearing of the release of Griner:

The Biden administration was right to bring Ms. Griner home … as the use of wrongful detentions and hostage diplomacy continues around the globe, it’s clear the US government needs to be more assertive. If bad actors like Russia are going to grab innocent Americans, the US needs to prepare for a swifter, more direct response, and be prepared in advance. In Russia’s case, this may mean taking more law-breaking Kremlin-connected Russians into custody. It’s not like there aren’t plenty around the world.

The joint exchange of Whelan and Griner together may seem like a reasonable enough swap for Bout to anyone on the outside, but to a desperate Russia with just a couple of notable US citizens to its hand, it was unlikely to take place. The situation is clear: America lacks bullishness in prisoner exchange negotiations. It has failed to secure the release of one highly valuable prisoner of the Russian government because it does not feel that it has adequate leverage to precipitate it. 

Russia took and punished Brittney Griner in order to send a message to America, to claw back some leverage at a time when the West was uniting powerfully against it. If the West wants to get serious about countering Russia’s hostage diplomacy (without sacrificing war criminals so notorious that they inspire a campy Nick Cage b-movie named Lord of War), we need to start putting some serious leverage behind our diplomatic efforts. Look like the innocent flower / But be the serpent underneath advised the somewhat politically-astute Lady Macbeth. Diplomacy is no different, and we need to back it up by having a few more war criminals in our back pocket.

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