The United States conducted a prisoner exchange with the Russian Federation in the United Arab Emirates on Thursday. Thanks to her, Brittney Griner – an American basketball player sentenced in Russia to 9 years in prison – was freed. In exchange for her, the United States released from prison Viktor But – a Russian arms dealer called “The Merchant of Death”.
The information about Griner’s release was confirmed by the US president Joe Biden. “Just spoke to Brittney Griner. She’s safe. She’s on the plane. She’s on her way home,” the US president tweeted.
CNN was the first to announce the exchange of Griner for Buta. Information about the exchange, which took place at the airport in Abu Dhabi, confirmed Russian Foreign Ministry.
Griner, a WNBA player and two-time Olympic champion, was sentenced to nine years in prison in Russia after she was detained at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport in February for possession of e-cigarette cartridges containing hash oil.
The case of the arrest and conviction of an American against the background war in Ukraine and the growing confrontation between Russia and the USA, moved to the political level. Efforts to free a basketball player who was found wrongly convicted by the state department were at the highest level.
CNN notes that the exchange failed to free the second U.S. citizen wrongfully detained in a Russian prison – Paul Whelan, although it is known that this was what the American side was striving for in difficult negotiations with Russia.
Whelan was detained in Moscow in 2018 on charges of espionage. He was sentenced to 16 years in prison.
Who is Wiktor But released by the US?
He was probably the most famous Russian detained first in American custody, and later also in the prison whose return the Russian Federation was most vocal about.
Shortly after being convicted by an American court in 2012 for i.a. conspiring to kill American citizens, a Russian arms dealer sent the message through his lawyer. But “believes it’s not over,” his lawyer said
The then Attorney General, Eric Holder, called Buta “one of the most successful arms dealers in the world.” The shoe became known among U.S. intelligence officials, earning him the nickname “The Merchant of Death” because he evaded capture for years. His exploits inspired the 2005 film Lord of War, in which Nicolas Cage played a character based on Boots.
In interviews with journalists, But has repeatedly denied accusations of collaboration with Russian intelligence agencies. Mark Galeotti, an expert on the Russian security services, said that there are clear indications – But’s education, social and professional contacts and logistical skills – that he is a member of Russian military intelligence or at least worked closely with it.
“This is also the opinion of the US and other countries – and it explains why Russia is fighting so persistently for his return,” said Galeotti, a lecturer on Russia and international crime at University College London, in an interview. “All countries are trying to free their citizens held in hostile jurisdictions, but it is clear that the recovery of Viktor But was a special priority for the Russians,” he added.
He sold weapons to government forces as well as rebels fighting them
Viktor But grew up in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, until he was drafted into the Soviet army at the age of 18, eventually becoming an air force officer.
The Soviet Union collapsed shortly after But left the army. As the Russian economy collapsed and criminal gangs flourished, he moved to the United Arab Emirates and founded a shipping company that later grew to a fleet of 60 aircraft.
As military supplies from former Soviet states leaked onto the black market, his shipping empire supplied weapons to rebels, militants and terrorists around the world, U.S. prosecutors said. During the privatization era of the 1990s in Russia, arms dealers were able to use old contacts, especially military and business contacts from the Soviet era, and set up shell companies to hide their dealings.
But was accused of selling weapons to al-Qaeda, the Taliban and militants in Rwanda. According to several investigations and a US indictment, he and his associates supplied arms to Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Algeria, where he sold arms to both government forces and rebels fighting them.
His ability to evade capture gave him notoriety among Western intelligence officials. In 1995, the Taliban shot down one of his planes in Afghanistan, seized the cargo and trapped the crew. However, Boot and Russian officials managed to get the crew out of the country: in 2003, he told The New York Times Magazine that “she had been set free,” and in 2012, The New Yorker reported, he said that she simply managed to escape.
In 2003, British Foreign Secretary Peter Hain coined the nickname “Merchant of Death” for Boot. After reading one report on him in 2003, Hain said: “But is a leading dealer of death that is a major conduit for aircraft and arms supply routes from Eastern Europe, mainly Bulgaria, Moldova and Ukraine, to Liberia and Angola.”
The UN recognized him as an associate of former Liberian President Charles Taylor, who was convicted in 2012 of aiding and abetting war crimes during the civil war in Sierra Leone. “(Shoe is) a businessman, dealer and transporter of arms and minerals, (who) supported the regime of former President Taylor in (efforts to) destabilize Sierra Leone and gain illegal access to diamonds,” the UN documents state.
The US caught But in Bangkok in 2008. The “merchant of death” found there secret agents of the DEA (an American agency fighting drug crimes), whom he considered to be rebels from the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC), whom United States considered a terrorist organization until last year.
When potential buyers told him the weapon could be used to kill American pilots, he replied, “We have the same enemy,” prosecutors said.
Thai authorities arrested him on the spot. In 2010, he was extradited to the United States, and in 2011 he was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
But said the US case against him was politically motivated. His wife said his only connection to Colombia was “tango lessons”.
Russian efforts to free But are part of ‘KGB culture’
Since then, the Russian authorities have maintained that But is innocent and presented him as a target for a possible exchange for high-ranking American and Ukrainian prisoners held by Russia. He was at the center of Russia’s “we don’t abandon ours” campaign, which deemed his arrest unfair and politically motivated.
The Boot exchange was a priority for Russia, “a matter of honor and absolute pragmatism,” Galeotti said.
Russian intelligence agencies “inherited a culture from the former Soviet KGB that makes it clear to their agents, ‘we’ll get you back’. This kind of loyalty to your own is really important when you expect people to put themselves in danger,” he said.
It is not clear whether But’s return will further encourage Russia to arrest Westerners whom it could exchange for the Russians it detains. Moscow denies allegations that it deliberately arrested people to force the exchange.
Although But was the most notorious Russian prisoner in America, there are many more Russians in American prisons, especially those involved in hacking, said Andrei Soldatov, a Russian journalist and security expert at the Center for European Policy Analysis.
Russian authorities, Soldatov said, learned to “create hostage banks” in the early 2000s during a brutal war with the separatist region of Chechnya, just after the president came to power Vladimir Putin.
“It was a lesson they never completely forgot,” Soldatov said. Referring to the Russian security agencies, he said: “From their point of view, it makes perfect sense to do this to the US.
nytimes.com, bbc.com, PAP
Main photo source: NARONG SANGNAK/EPA/PAP