(CNN)– The future of two US citizens detained in Russia could hinge on the release of a convicted Russian arms dealer, dubbed the “Merchant of Death” by his accusers, whose life story inspired a Hollywood movie.
Viktor Bout, a former Soviet military officer, is currently serving a 25-year prison sentence in the United States on charges of conspiring to kill Americans, acquiring and exporting anti-aircraft missiles, and providing material support to a terrorist organization. Bout maintains that he is innocent.
The Kremlin has long called for Bout’s release, criticizing his 2012 sentence as “baseless and biased.”
CNN reported Wednesday that the Biden administration has offered Bout in a possible trade for American basketball star Brittney Griner and former US Marine Paul Whelan, according to people briefed on the matter.
On the same day, Brittney Griner testified in a Russian court as part of her trial on drug charges following her February arrest at a Moscow airport. Whelan was arrested on alleged espionage charges in 2018 and sentenced to 16 years in prison in a trial that US authorities called unfair.
Their families have urged the White House to secure their release, including through prisoner swaps if necessary. Now at the center of that offer is Bout, a man who evaded international arrest warrants and asset freezes for years.
The Russian businessman, who speaks six languages, was arrested in 2008 in a covert operation led by US anti-drug agents in Thailand posing as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Finally, he was extradited to the US in 2010 after a lengthy judicial process.
“Viktor Bout has been enemy number one of the international arms trade for many years, fueling some of the world’s most violent conflicts,” Preet Bharara, a federal prosecutor in Manhattan, said when Bout was sentenced in New York in 2012.
“He was finally brought to justice in a US court for agreeing to provide a staggering number of military-grade weapons to a terrorist organization declared committed to killing Americans.”
The trial focused on Bout’s role in supplying weapons to the FARC, a guerrilla group that waged an insurgency in Colombia until 2016. The US said the weapons were intended to kill US citizens.
But Viktor Bout’s history in the arms trade went much further. He has been accused of assembling a fleet of cargo planes to smuggle military-grade weapons to conflict zones around the world since the 1990s, fueling bloody conflicts from Liberia to Sierra Leone to Afghanistan. Allegations of trafficking activities in Liberia led US authorities to freeze his US assets in 2004 and blocked any US transactions.
Bout has repeatedly maintained that he was operating legitimate businesses and acting merely as a logistics provider. He is believed to be in his 50s, but his age is in dispute due to different passports and documents.
“His early days are a mystery,” Douglas Farah, a senior fellow at the International Center for Assessment and Strategy and co-author of a book on Bout, told CNN in 2010.
Farah told Mother Jones magazine in 2007 that according to his multiple passports, Viktor Bout was born in 1967 in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, the son of an accountant and a car mechanic. He said Bout graduated from the Military Institute of Foreign Languages, a well-known high school for Russian military intelligence.
“He was a Soviet officer, most likely a lieutenant, who simply saw the opportunities presented by three factors that arose with the collapse of the USSR and the state sponsorship that came with it: abandoned aircraft on the runways from Moscow to Kyiv that can no longer fly due to to a lack of money for fuel or maintenance, huge warehouses of surplus weapons that were guarded by guards suddenly receiving little or no pay, and the growing demand for those weapons from traditional Soviet customers and emerging armed groups from Africa to the Philippines. Farah told the magazine.
Bout has said that he worked as a military officer in Mozambique. Others have said that he actually went to Angola, where Russia had a large military presence at the time, Farah told CNN. He first became known when the United Nations began investigating him in the early and mid-1990s and the United States began to get involved.
Viktor Bout, who reportedly used names such as “Victor Anatoliyevich Bout”, “Victor But”, “Viktor Butt”, “Viktor Bulakin”, and “Vadim Markovich Aminov”, is believed to have been the inspiration for the arms dealer played by Nicolas Cage. in the 2005 movie “Lord of War.”
In 2002, CNN’s Jill Dougherty met with Bout in Moscow. She asked him about the accusations against him: did he sell weapons to the Taliban? Al Qaeda? Did you supply the rebels in Africa and get paid in blood diamonds? He denied each claim.
“It is a false accusation and it is a lie,” he said. “I’ve never touched diamonds in my life and I’m not a diamond guy and I don’t want that business.”
“I’m not afraid,” he told Dougherty. “I didn’t do anything in my life that I should be afraid of.”
Previous reporting by Ashley Hayes and CNN.