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Where most people saw chaos, Victor Butt saw opportunity.
Butt, a 55-year-old Russian, was the world’s most notorious arms dealer until a US court convicted him in 2011 and sent him to prison in Illinois. He is now the focus of a potential prisoner exchange between the United States and Russia, which holds two Americans the Biden administration hopes to free.
Bout was in his mid-20s when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and vast amounts of Soviet military equipment were scattered across the newly created 15 countries. Most were ill-equipped to pay their soldiers or keep track of the weapons they had just inherited. Almost anything was available for a price.
Trained as a linguist by the Soviet military, Bout began buying Soviet military transport planes and loading them with weapons. The US says he sold them all over the world – primarily in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
He was an entrepreneur, not an ideologue, and he sold to governments fighting insurgents and to insurgents fighting governments. Separating fact from fiction has often been difficult when documenting Butt’s work, but many reports say he even sold weapons to both sides of a conflict.
Butt always denied selling guns and claimed he was sending flowers and frozen chicken to some of the most violent places in the world.
He was always hard to identify, but he apparently lived in Moscow, traveled a lot, occasionally spoke to reporters and seemed to welcome at least some attention. He became so infamous that Hollywood made a movie based on his life in 2005 called The lord of deathStarring Nicolas Cage.
Despite facing international sanctions and threats of arrest, Bout managed to stay one step ahead of law enforcement until 2008, when he was arrested in a sting operation in Thailand organized by the US Drug Enforcement Agency.
The Thais extradited Bout to the United States two years later, where he was charged with conspiring to kill Americans. He was convicted in a Manhattan trial in 2011 and is serving just under half of his 25-year sentence in a prison in Marion, Ill.
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So why does Russian leader Vladimir Putin want to bring back the boot?
After all, he made his money by selling weapons intended for use by the military and successor states of the Soviet Union.
When CIA Director William Burns was asked this question at the Aspen Security Forum last week, he curtly said, “That’s a good question, because Victor Butt is a creep.”
Dan Hoffman, a former CIA officer who served in Russia, said Putin’s motivations should be seen through the lens of his ongoing battle with the United States.
“Every chance he gets, Vladimir Putin wants to show that he can go toe-to-toe with Russia’s main enemy,” Hoffman said. “It’s a good PR move for him to show that he cares about himself.”
The United States and Russia have a history of making deals for the return of their citizens. In April, the United States freed a Russian pilot convicted of conspiring to smuggle drugs into the United States, and Russia released Trevor Reed, a former Marine convicted of assaulting a Moscow police officer. freed
Typically, countries expel suspected spies in racketeering deals.
But the current negotiations seem uneven in some ways. The United States frees an arms trafficker who operated on an international scale for nearly two decades.
Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said on Wednesday that the two Americans, Brittany Greiner and Paul Whelan, were “wrongly detained and should be allowed to return home”.
Griner, 31, is a professional basketball star who admitted to having cannabis oil in his luggage at a Moscow airport in February. Whelan, 52, a former Marine who traveled openly to Russia for years, was arrested in 2019 and convicted of espionage in a secret trial.
Dan Hoffman says he supports efforts to free Americans.
“These deals are dirty, but there are two bad options,” he said. “One allows American citizens to get sick, and potentially worse, in jail. And the other basically makes a dirty deal. If it were me, I’d kick out our American citizens.”
Blinken said he had come up with a plan to return the two Americans to Russia, although he did not name Bout. Blinken plans to speak with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, although it is unclear when that might happen. The two have not spoken to each other since Russia invaded Ukraine in February.
The US-Russian prisoner exchange shows that the two countries can still trade at some level despite the dire state of relations and the backdrop of the war in Ukraine, where the Americans are the main supplier of arms to the Ukrainians.
But analysts say there is no real prospect that the overall climate – which has gone from bad to worse – is likely to improve.
Greg Meyer is NPR’s national security correspondent. go after him @gregmyre1.