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Basketball, Viktor Bout and Troubling Exchanges

Prison exchanges and swaps are never entirely satisfactory affairs. The appropriate measure in such cases is the degree of dissatisfaction that arises from them. In the instance of the exchange of US basketballer Brittney Griner for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, the Russian negotiators may well count themselves richer in the bargain.

Griner, a two-time Olympic champion, was detained in February this year at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport possessing cartridges for vapes with hashish oil. Her argument was that these had been prescribed. The court was not convinced, sentencing her to a brutal nine-year prison sentence for drug smuggling.

Bout, invested with Satanic-like qualities of influence by US authorities and Hollywood, where his role is given a celluloid form by Nicolas Cage, was convicted in 2011 on four charges that included conspiring to kill US citizens.

He was arrested three years prior in Bangkok after attempting to sell surface-to-air missiles to members of the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) posing as arms buyers for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. This very fact gave Bout cause for consternation and suspicion: the sting operation, the smell of politics. For his part, it was all business.

More popularly, he was accused of something other powers and entities have done repeatedly since decolonisation: spread the murderous joy of armaments across the African continent through the 1990s and early 2000s. Throw in claims by US authorities that he was a former officer of the Russian military intelligence directorate, the GRU, and we have a character with form.

Bout’s ventures were more complicated than merely shipping weapons. In the 1990s, he launched his own air-freight company Air Cess, acquired a fleet of military aircraft, and shipped televisions, air-conditioners, furniture, textiles, electronics and weapons to a number of countries in conflict from his operating base in Sharjah. He was positively catholic in acquiring his clients: from officials in Washington to war criminals such as Liberia’s Charles Taylor.

The prospects for seeking an exchange involving Bout were already circulating in July, when it was reported that he might be exchanged for Paul Whelan, serving a 16-year sentence in Russia on espionage charges, along with Griner. Even the original sentencing justice, District Judge Shira Scheindlin, argued that “the situation has changed and this is a trade we should make.” Bout had most likely lost his place in the pecking order of arms trafficking.

Former chief of operations at the DEA, Michael Braun, expressed his alarm at the very idea. “Before going through this trade, it would behoove US President Joe Biden to remember just how dangerous Bout was – and how much damage his release could do to US national security.”

The Russian negotiators, refusing a job lot offer, drew the line at Whelan, leaving the Biden administration to accept the return of Griner while raising questions about the currency of such exchanges.

The air of disagreement from the smokestacks of commentary in the US was certainly palpable. But Griner’s return came to be seen as morally necessary, given, as a CNN report put it, her sentence “to a Russian penal colony for possession of a single gram of cannabis oil.” Bout’s release became a justifiable move because of Griner’s “blatant seizure as a geopolitical pawn on the eve of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.”

Russian human rights lawyer Arseny Levinson also thought the sentence political in nature. “She should not have been sentenced to a real prison term at all. Moreover, such a severe punishment should not have been imposed, it was motivated solely by raising the stakes in the exchange, making a mockery out of the hostage.”

The Griner-Bout exchange has thrown up an unwelcome mirror for the Biden administration. The failure to secure Whelan’s release led former President Donald Trump to fume at “a ‘stupid’ and unpatriotic embarrassment for the USA,” while House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) called it a “gift to Vladimir Putin” and imperilling to “American lives.”

US Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) argued that the trade gave another reason to “impeach” the President. Biden “traded Russian terrorist arms dealer, Viktor Bout, left a US Marine in a Russian jail, and brought home a professional basketball player.”

The sentiment was echoed in gloating fashion by RT editor Margarita Simonyan, who thought Whelan a “hero spy” as opposed to Griner, a “drug-addicted black lesbian who suffered for vaping hashish”.

Then came that rather uncomfortable fact that marijuana, while legal in 21 US states, has also seen prisoners serve life sentences for possessing small amounts of the drug. Neuroscientist and drug reform advocate Dr Carl Hart celebrated Griner’s release, but suggested the need to do more: “Now let’s free all drug war political prisoners.”

Being righteous over the release of Bout is an easy thing. The arms-trade has a far more obvious lethality to it than drugs or the pet obsession of wealthy countries with “people smuggling.” But that ignores the muddy picture of deals, collaborative alliances and understandings known as the international arms market.

Singling out Bout as the cartoonish gangster who endangered US lives ignores the fact that the United States remains the world’s biggest arms exporter, thereby endangering the lives of citizens across the globe. Between 2017 and 2021, the US accounted for 39 percent of the major arms transfers globally. This was twice that of Russia, and almost 10 times what China sent its customers.

Another excruciating point is that one can only become a merchant of death if the merchandise, and the interest in buying and using it, is there. As Bout himself put it, if you were going to prosecute a figure such as himself, you might as well prosecute US arms dealers whose weapons eventually end up being used against US citizens. (The National Rifle Association, take note.) “They are involved even more than me!”


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  1. Michael Taylor

    If ever I would have found myself agreeing with Republican Kevin McCarthy, would be the day I officially declared myself mad.

    That day has come.

    By decree, I’m officially mad.

  2. Meg

    Great analysis and most eloquently informative as usual! Thank you Mr Kampmark.

  3. New England Cocky

    Funny how the American NE military industrial complex produces about 90% of world armaments but is apparently immune from adverse comment for the secondary weapons market freely trading across the world trouble spots. I am reminded that after the 1975 US defeat in Vietnam the US government declined to buy back from the victorious North Vietnamese government the enormous amount of armaments and munitions abandoned as the Americans ran home with their tail between their legs.

    In memory of Australian war photographer the late Greg Davis who caught the action of North Vietnamese tanks breaking through the gates of the US Embassy in Saigon …..and many other historical pics.

  4. Terence Mills


    It was in Orwell’s 1984 that the the concept of perpetual war somewhere (anywhere) was shown to be fundamental to the welfare of the industrial armaments industry : for every manufactured commodity to prosper in the market place, be it a box of cornflakes or a bomb delivered by a predator drone, there has to be a manufacturer able to produce and a consumer willing to pay .

    That’s what we’re seeing in Ukraine currently and if it weren’t Ukraine it would have to be somewhere else – the beast must be fed.

  5. Steve Davis

    Meg said “Great analysis and most eloquently informative as usual! Thank you Mr Kampmark.”

    Exactly so.

    The article encourages readers to look at the big picture, which many are reluctant to do. The big picture can be particularly ugly.

  6. Phil Pryor

    The big picture can be ugly indeed, Steve. World population has increased by 82 to 85 millions per annum recently, and they “know” everywhere what they want and what seems possible.., meat, phones, computers, cars, decent housing, education, infrastructure, careers, travel. The strain on world resources is huge, not diminishing, threatening. Add the corporate sluttery of profiteering in weapons, gas and oil, resources, slave and child labour, coupled with inferior leadership by inadequate pretenders, and.., is it getting out of control, beyond “us”, the ordinary folk who want better? So, after the departure of, say, Napoleon, or Hitler, or Stalin, many would have thought that it’s over and now things can get better…

  7. Harry Lime

    America…land of the free,home of the brave,and a heaving mass of hypocrisy.We’re not that far behind them.

  8. Steve Davis

    Phil, as you implied, the list of alarming factors, globe-threatening factors, is endless and in many cases seemingly out of control.

    This is so overwhelming that it leads many to seek comfort, or security, or to switch off, by accepting the dominant narrative. We need to continually ask ourselves this – what’s behind the dominant narrative; why is it dominant?

  9. Roswell

    The last paragraph really hits the nail on the head. We only have mass murderers because they are supplied the weapons to be able to commit those murders.

  10. Roswell

    Countries with the Highest Total Gun Deaths (all causes) in 2019

    Brazil — 49,436
    United States — 37,038
    Venezuela — 28,515
    Mexico — 22,116
    India — 14,710
    Colombia — 13,169
    Philippines — 9,267
    Guatemala — 5,980

    Does anybody else see the problem here?

  11. Roswell

    “Culture” sums it up, AC.

  12. Clakka

    C’mon, give it a break. Whilst in the can, Bout’s had his correctional, 10 years of re-education and instruction sponsored by Carlisle Corp.

    He’s good to go – a bargain.

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