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Who is Viktor Bout, the Russian arms dealer known as the "Merchant of Death"?

Viktor Bout at center of possible prisoner swap
Viktor Bout, Russian arms dealer, at center of possible prisoner swap 02:23

Speculation is growing that the U.S. could release Viktor Bout, a convicted arms dealer nicknamed the "Merchant of Death," to secure the freedom of women's basketball star Brittney Griner and former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, who are both imprisoned in Russia. 

Russian state media has speculated for months that Griner, who was sentenced to nine years in prison for having vape cartridges with cannabis oil, and Whelan, sentenced to 16 years in a Russian prison on espionage charges that he called a setup, could be swapped for Bout, whose freedom has long been sought by the Kremlin. But the Biden administration remained quiet about the possibility. 

Then on July 27, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, offered the first public glimpse at efforts to bring Griner and Whelan home, saying the U.S. has put forward a "substantial proposal" to Russia. A week later, Russian officials said they were "ready to discuss" a prisoner swap.

Biden administration officials would not respond to U.S. media reports that the offer on the table includes a potential prisoner swap for Bout. Bout's lawyer would also not confirm whether his client was part of negotiations. The Kremlin said no deal has been made "yet"

Bout, a former Soviet military translator turned international arms dealer, has been imprisoned for more than a decade after he was lured to Thailand in a Drug Enforcement Administration sting operation that spanned three continents. 

"Viktor Bout, in my eyes, is one of the most dangerous men on the face of the Earth," Michael Braun, the former chief of operations for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, told "60 Minutes" in 2010. 

Russian Viktor Bout Extradition Hearing Postponed
Viktor Bout sits inside a detention cell at Bangkok Supreme Court on July 28, 2008, in Bangkok, Thailand.  Chumsak Kanoknan / Getty Images

Bout, the son of a bookkeeper and auto mechanic, was conscripted into the Soviet Army when he was 18 years old after playing competitive volleyball as a teenager, according to a New Yorker profile published in 2012. He served for two years in an infantry brigade in western Ukraine, then applied to the Military Institute of Foreign Languages in Moscow, where he studied Portuguese. Bout insisted to The New Yorker that he was never a spy, but others, including his former business partner and a former CIA officer, said he had once worked for the GRU, the Soviet foreign military intelligence agency. 

In 1995, when he was 28, he began spending time at the cargo hangars in Sharjah's International Airport in the United Arab Emirates, eventually launching his cargo airline, Air Cess, with a small fleet of Russian planes that delivered goods to Africa and Afghanistan. 

In the years that followed, Bout helped fuel civil wars across the world by supplying more sophisticated weapons, sometimes to both sides of the bloody conflicts. "If I didn't do it, someone else would," Bout told the New Yorker. 

By then, he was on the radar of U.S. and British officials. Peter Hain, the minister of state for Africa in Britain's Foreign Office, sounded the alarm as British soldiers in Africa came under attack by increasingly sophisticated weapons.

"Sanctions-busters are continuing to perpetuate the conflict in Sierra Leone and Angola, with the result that countless lives are being lost and mutilations are taking place. Viktor Bout is indeed the chief sanctions-buster, and is a merchant of death who owns air companies that ferry in arms and other logistic support for the rebels in Angola and Sierra Leone and take out the diamonds which pay for those arms … aiding and abetting people who are turning their guns on British soldiers," Hain told the House of Commons in 2000. 

The "Merchant of Death" moniker "had come to Hain spontaneously, as he'd read yet another intelligence briefing on Bout's activities," according to the book "Operation Relentless: The Hunt for the Richest, Deadliest Criminal in History," by Damien Lewis. "It struck an immediate chord and the press took up the hue and cry." 

In the U.S, the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control, unveiled sanctions against Bout and his companies that froze assets and prevented any transactions through American banks. But his business was so concealed by front companies that the U.S. government unwittingly contracted with two of his companies to deliver supplies to U.S. troops in Iraq. 

By 2007, the Drug Enforcement Administration devised a plan to lure Bout out of Russia with an arms deal that would be hard to refuse. The agency hired an undercover agent to contact a trusted associate of Bout's about a big business deal. That exchange led to the first meeting between the DEA's fake arms buyers, who were posing as officials of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, also known as the FARC, and Bout's associate on the island of Curacao, a few hundred miles off the coast of Colombia.

Bout's associate, Andrew Smulian, traveled to Moscow to present the deal to Bout. Smulian met with the undercover operatives two weeks later in Copenhagen, telling them that his business partner liked the deal. 

Weeks later, Bout was on his way to Thailand, thinking he would be meeting with FARC officials to discuss shipping what prosecutors said was "an arsenal of military grade weapons" to attack American helicopters in Colombia. 

During a March 2008 meeting in a Bangkok hotel conference room, Bout told the DEA informants posing as FARC officials that he could airdrop the arms in Colombia and acknowledged that the weapons could be used to kill Americans. 

After listening in on the meeting, Thai police and DEA agents burst into the room and arrested Bout. 

"The game is over," Bout said. 

Alleged Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout
Accused Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout arrives at court in Bangkok on October 5, 2010.  NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP via Getty Images

He was extradited to the U.S. in 2010 after two years of legal proceedings and convicted on terrorism charges a year later.  

Bout was sentenced to 25 years in prison. Now 55 years old, he was expected to be released in August 2029, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons website. 

"They will try to lock me up for life," Bout told The New Yorker before his sentencing. "But I'll get back to Russia. I don't know when. But I'm still young." 

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