Notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout gave his first interview to a Russian state news outlet just hours after touching down in Moscow, saying that he does not believe he was exchanged for Brittney Griner because he’s especially valuable to the Kremlin — noting, ‘We just don’t leave our people behind.”
Speaking to Russian spy-turned-RT News correspondent Maria Butina, Bout sought to downplay the significance of the high-profile prisoner swap, which saw the WNBA star returned to the US Thursday after spending 10 months in a Russian prison for a drug conviction.
“To consider why they exchanged me now — it’s unhelpful,” Bout told Butina.
“They exchanged me and that’s that. I don’t think that I am important to Russian politics. We just don’t leave our people behind.”
Critics in the U.S. and elsewhere have decried the prisoner swap, saying President Biden paid too high a price to free the basketball player.
Bout, once described as the world’s most prolific arms dealer and dubbed the “Merchant of Death,” was arrested in 2008 in Thailand and convicted in 2011 for conspiring to kill Americans by selling tens of millions of dollars worth of weapons to the FARC narco-terror group based in Colombia. He was sentenced to 25 years in federal prison.
The Kremlin had been eager to bring Bout back, reportedly because of his suspected ties to Russia’s military intelligence and Igor Sechin, an oligarch who is considered to be President Vladimir Putin’s right-hand man.
Bout, who has painted himself as a legitimate businessman, has denied having anything to do with Russia’s shadowy echelons of power, and in his sit-down with RT he insisted that his case was unremarkable.
Bout told Butina that there were “probably thousands and thousands and thousands” of cases like his, and that he was simply caught up in the gears of geopolitics.
Bout, 56, briefly spoke of his experience serving time in a US prison, saying that he was never subjected to discrimination for being Russian, which he attributed to the prison’s location in what he called America’s “red belt”. Bout had been incarcerated in a medium-security facility in Marion, Illinois.
“Mostly my fellow inmates were sympathetic towards Russia, or at least, if they knew nothing about it, they would ask me questions,” he said.
The prisoner swap, which resulted in the release of the notorious international criminal, was slammed by President Biden’s critics, including because it failed to win freedom for Paul Whelan – an ex-Marine who has languished in a Russian prison for nearly four years now.
Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said the US tried to also secure Whelan’s release as part of the Bout deal, but the Russians would only agree to a one-for-one exchange.
Asked to weigh in on the controversy surrounding the swap, Bout struck a diplomatic tone, saying he did not believe it was a sign of weakness on the part of the Biden administration.
“I wouldn’t say that the Americans caved in by exchanging me,” Bout said. “If the agreement was reached, it means that common ground was found that satisficed both sides.”
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