Bout, nicknamed the “Merchant of Death,” is a former Soviet officer convicted in 2011 on charges including “conspiracy to provide material support or resources to a designated foreign terrorist organization.” Bout was also charged with illegal weapons trafficking, wire fraud, and money laundering related to his work arming the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC). Bout was ultimately sentenced to 26 years in prison.
In order to secure Bout’s capture, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration used an informant to orchestrate a sting operation with a fake weapons purchase of surface-to-air missiles for the FARC. Bout was detained by Thai security forces after being lured into the country to meet with the informant’s backers. Following his arrest, the U.S. secured Bout’s extradition from Thailand, a move that was heavily protested by Russian authorities.
Authorities hunted Bout for years before his arrest. His work within the illegal arms trade stemmed from the fall of the Soviet Union, after which Bout seized on his linguistic training and access to Soviet military equipment from former Soviet nations to begin running weapons shipments using a fleet of aircraft. Jonathan M. Winer, deputy assistant secretary of state to former President Bill Clinton, once called Bout a “creature of the Yeltsin era, of disorganized crime, who adapted to live in the era of Putin and more organized crime.”
Bout was accused of funneling weapons into the Angolan and Liberian civil wars, as well as of supplying weapons to several African nations in the early 2000s, including Kenya and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Following the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S., Bout was accused of having sold aircraft to the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, accusations Bout continues to deny.
In 2004, the U.S. froze Bout’s American assets under Executive Order 13348, which imposed sanctions on the Liberian government and their former President Charles Taylor. But even before the U.S. managed to capture Bout, his reputation was well known throughout the world. The 2005 film Lord of War dramatized Bout’s exploits with actor Nicholas Cage playing the titular role.
Griner was arrested by Russian authorities in February for possession of a controlled substance, two cannabis cartridges that were found in her luggage by customs officials. Griner was sentenced to nine years imprisonment, and had recently been moved to a penal colony to serve out her sentence.
In a statement published on Twitter, President Joe Biden, who approved the prisoner swap, stated that Griner “is safe. She is on a plane. She is on her way home.”
Russian government officials have long sought the return of Bout to their jurisdiction. At the July Aspen Security Forum, CIA director William Burns and former CIA agent Dan Hoffman were asked about the motivations behind Russia’s efforts. “Every opportunity he gets, Vladimir Putin wants to show that he can go toe-to-toe with Russia’s main enemy,” Hoffman said. “It’s a real good public relations move for him to show that he’s taking care of his own.”