Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout speaks out after Brittney Griner swap

Viktor Bout and Marina Butina sit across from each other during a television interview..
Viktor Bout and Marina Butina. (via RT)
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Sitting in a Moscow studio as snow fell outside, looking relaxed in a blue blazer and maroon T-shirt, Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout described his 14 years in a U.S. prison in his first interview since he was exchanged for American basketball player Brittney Griner, who had been held in a Russian prison colony following a drug conviction earlier this year.

“The whole world, basically, is a game,” he said, describing the lessons he says he learned from readings in Eastern philosophy. Putting that lesson into practice, Bout says, he would begin mornings by “laughing hysterically” in defiance of his fate.

A notorious arms dealer with alleged ties to Russian security services, Bout was arrested in Thailand in 2008 and extradited to the United States in 2010. A federal indictment charged him with conspiracy to kill Americans by selling weapons to Colombian guerrillas.

“There was nothing,” Bout said of those charges. He was also accused of selling weapons to the Taliban in Afghanistan, as well as to oppressive African regimes. The 2005 film “Lord of War,” starring Nicolas Cage, is a glamorized retelling of his notorious exploits.

Viktor Bout in Moscow.
Bout in Moscow on Monday. (Press Service of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia/Handout via Reuters)

Bout went to trial in 2011 in New York City; convicted on terrorism charges, he was slated to remain in prison until 2029. In his interview after last week’s early release, he suggested that his federal defense attorney had tried to romantically seduce him, crudely simulating her appearance with hand gestures.

The interview aired on RT, a state-run Russian television network, and was conducted by Maria Butina, a Russian spy who was expelled from the United States in 2019 after spending more than a year behind bars.

In the interview, Bout described his time in solitary confinement as especially harrowing — “Yes, there was panic. Yes, it was very difficult” — but also complained about American prison food, lamenting his inability to access garlic or fresh herbs.

Bout’s release was celebrated in Russia, which had asked for his extradition a decade ago. It was not until Griner’s arrest earlier this year that Bout’s own release became a real possibility — one that became increasingly likely after the American basketball star, whose luggage contained cannabis cartridges, was convicted on drug trafficking charges and sentenced to nine years in a Russian prison. Even though Griner’s high profile probably protected her to some degree, conditions in Russian prisons and penal colonies have often been described as barbaric.

WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner on a plane as she flies to Abu Dhabi to be exchanged for Viktor Bout.
WNBA star Brittney Griner on a plane as she flies to Abu Dhabi to be exchanged for Bout. (Russian Federal Security Service via AP)

President Biden announced the prisoner exchange that saw both Griner and Bout freed last week. Some in the United States have criticized the deal, arguing that it could embolden other rogue regimes to capture Americans in hopes of extracting similar concessions. Such qualms have been nonexistent in Russia, where Bout has been celebrated as the victim of an unjust prosecution.

“Hero of our time,” read a description of the RT interview posted on YouTube. In that interview, Bout was eager to play the role of national martyr. “Everything that happened to me is now happening to our country,” he said, alluding to the international condemnation Russia has experienced since launching the invasion of Ukraine earlier this year.

“I am proud that I am Russian, and that Putin is our president. I honestly don’t understand why we didn’t do this earlier,” he said of the unprovoked attack on Ukraine.

Bout also launched into a series of culture war attacks not dissimilar from those made by Biden’s critics on Fox News and elsewhere.

President Biden delivers remarks at the White House.
President Biden at the White House on Dec. 8. (Nathan Posner/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

“In America right now, there is reverse racism. To be a normal white person who wants a family, who wants children, who wants to love, is very difficult,” Bout said at one point. He also criticized efforts to find and prosecute organizers and perpetrators of the violent riot at the U.S. Capitol that sought to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.

“Look at what they did to the participants of the so-called armed insurrection on Jan. 6,” he said, effectively mirroring the arguments of hard-line conservatives like Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz, who have depicted the rioters as the victims of political attacks.

Bout additionally made criticisms of transgender rights (“Imagine it, in American schools they’re now teaching — to first graders, 6 or 7 years old — that there are 72 genders”) and criminal justice reform (“Look at what’s happening in San Francisco. Look at what’s happening in Chicago. Look at what’s happening in New York”).

Yet he also claimed he was at peace and harbored no bitterness.

“You have to learn to forgive,” Bout said.