The Release Of Viktor Bout: A New Age In Russia-U.S. Relations

Last week, amid the ongoing conflict in Ukraine that has pitted American-armed fighters against Russian invaders, Washington and Moscow conducted a high-profile prisoner swap: Brittney Griner for Viktor Bout. Griner, an American WNBA player, was sentenced to nine years in Russian prison for cannabis possession earlier this year. Bout, a prolific Russian arms dealer known as the Merchant of Death, has been in U.S. custody since 2012 on terrorism-related charges. Exchange talks between Russia and the United States started in May, and while negotiations included proposals for the freedom of various prisoners at various points in time, the original plan to exchange Griner for Bout was eventually settled upon.

Within the United States, reactions to the prisoner swap have been mixed. Democrats have celebrated Griner’s release as a necessary action, pointing to concerns for Griner’s safety in a penal colony known for its sexism, racism, and homophobia. Republicans have expressed disdain for the fact that Paul Whelan, a former U.S. marine being held in Russia for espionage, remains in custody; five days after the exchange, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said that there has been no further contact between Washington and Moscow regarding further prisoner swaps. Many in the United States also worry that cooperation with Russia will incentivize the unjust taking of prisoners. Representative Michael McCaul, ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, expressed relief at the basketball player’s release but warned that the trade “will only embolden Vladimir Putin to continue his evil practice of taking innocent Americans hostage for use as political pawns.” Further criticism has arisen from the disparity in charges leveled against the prisoners. In short, Bout’s freedom could foster global conflict. However, President Biden indicated no doubt at having made the right decision. “It’s my job as president of the United States to make the hard calls,” he stated the day Griner was released. “And I’m proud that, today, we have made one more family whole again.”

While successful negotiation with a state as unfriendly to the United States as Russia is certainly an impressive feat, and while Griner’s release should be celebrated, the exchange comes at a delicate time in foreign affairs. Griner was detained on February 17th, exactly a week prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and her detention was announced shortly after. As Moscow was inundated with international condemnation and sanction regimes, Griner represented a valuable celebrity bargaining chip. The fact that Putin was able to secure the release of such a dangerous criminal in exchange for a wrongfully detained and unjustly held professional athlete is unprecedented.

In fact, Washington has historically maintained the advantage when swapping prisoners with Moscow, a practice it has only partaken in five times total. In 1985, the United States released three spies in exchange for twenty-three American citizens held by Russia, the largest-ever prisoner exchange at the time. This deal, wherein the U.S. clearly benefited more than the then-Soviet Union did, is more emblematic of typical relations between the two countries. American officials have repeatedly accused Moscow of holding U.S. citizens under questionable pretexts, and as such, often refuse to negotiate without steep conditions. At a time when Putin is seeking to advance his imperialist agenda, this most recent prisoner swap is anomalous. It seems to be a measure aimed at constructing a superficial guise of international cooperation and gaining political points rather than at initiating effective peace processes or ensuring the long-term security of war-ridden nations.

The freedom of Viktor Bout has dangerous implications for conflict globally, given the work he has done to foster violence in the past. He will most likely become involved with the current war in Ukraine considering his direct ties to Putin. Considering recent involvement of Russian groups like Wagner in the continent, Bout could look to do business in various countries within Africa as well. Overall, international peace (especially within vulnerable regions) will be more susceptible to disruption as long as Viktor Bout is free.