Russian Viktor Bout talks Griner, prisoner swap, arms case

T.J. Quinn, ESPN Staff WriterSep 8, 2023, 07:39 AM ET

CloseT.J. Quinn joined ESPN in November 2007 as an investigative reporter for ESPN’s Enterprise Unit, which is charged with developing long-form, investigative features to be presented across multiple platforms.

Russian Viktor Bout, the so-called Merchant of Death involved in a prisoner exchange for WNBA star Brittney Griner in December, says he followed Griner’s case closely from federal prison in Illinois and learned he was being swapped for her when guards came to his cell with boxes early the morning of his release.

In an exclusive interview with ESPN, Bout says he recalled hearing a knock on his cell door and being told, “Hey, you know, wake up and pack up. You’re leaving.”

“Then,” Bout recalled, “I realized, yes, I’m going home.”

Bout, 56, and Griner, 32, were freed and returned to their respective countries Dec. 8, 2022, in a dramatic prisoner exchange on the tarmac of an airport in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Since his release, Bout has declared his support for Russian President Vladimir Putin and the invasion of Ukraine and has been nominated for a seat in a regional legislative assembly in central Russia. Elections there are Sunday.

After her release, Griner returned to play for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, who host their final home game Friday against Las Vegas, then play their final game of the season Sunday afternoon at Las Vegas. The Mercury missed the playoffs this year, snapping the league’s longest streak of 10 consecutive seasons.

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Russian authorities detained Griner at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport on Feb. 17, 2022, while she was traveling to Russia to play for club team UMMC Ekaterinburg. Customs officials found vape cartridges with oil derived from cannabis in her backpack. There was no public announcement of her arrest until March 5, 2022. Her plight unfolded at the same time Russia was invading Ukraine and further heightened tensions between Russia and the U.S. On July 7, 2022, Griner pleaded guilty to drug charges, saying she accidentally packed the vape cartridges. A Russian judge sentenced her to nine years in prison.

Bout was serving a 25-year sentence at the United States Penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, after being convicted in 2011 on four felony counts, including conspiracy to kill Americans. Undercover agents from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration arrested Bout in a 2008 sting operation in Thailand. The U.S. agents had posed as Colombian rebels trying to buy millions of dollars’ worth of weapons, which they said they would use to shoot down U.S. military aircraft.

Asked about outrage in the U.S. over the crimes he was convicted of more than a decade ago versus what Griner was convicted of, Bout said: “Well, think of this, that the same outrage was in Russia when I was sentenced to 25 years. Many people would say, ‘For what? Just for talking? Are you serious?’

“There is not even a proper translation to Russian of the crime of conspiracy. We don’t have such even the legal term, So, this is this same kind of outrage in Russia about my case and about many other cases.”

Bout maintained that he never intended to sell weapons. According to prosecutors, when undercover U.S. agents told him the weapons would be used against U.S. pilots, Bout responded, “We have the same enemy.”

Bout said he identified in some ways with Griner and what she might have gone through at the time, saying, “Of course, I feel, you know, bad or sorry for any person who’s going to be used as a pawn, despite whether they committed something or not.

“Publicity is a, like, multiplying factor which can really kill you if you are not strong enough to handle it.”

He said people like himself or Griner sometimes “pay a price” because politicians try to “play chess, on this big chessboard which they call geopolitics.”

Bout said he knew Griner had played for a Russian basketball team and won a Russian championship. He said that he followed developments in her case by watching coverage on CNN, ESPN and other U.S.-based networks while in prison and that he first heard that he might be involved in an exchange deal via news coverage.

Russian Viktor Bout, holding an envelope, meets WNBA All-Star Brittney Griner on Dec. 8, 2022, in their exchange on an airport tarmac in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Russian Federal Security Service/UPI/Shutterstock

“Look, I mean, in United States, I guess, only lazy would not, you know, cover her trial,” he said. “Every, you know, talking radio host, every news station, every TV channel on the news broadcast, so this was a big, big deal, I guess, you know, especially in jail.”

At the Abu Dhabi airport, Bout said, he was handed over to Russian authorities as Griner went with U.S. officials.

Upon seeing Griner, Bout said, he was surprised to see her without her signature hair — she cut it while in prison to avoid it freezing during the winter. He said that Griner was “way taller than me” and that they shook hands on the tarmac. Russian video of the moment shows the two approaching each other, but it cuts away and does not show them shaking hands as they turn for their respective departures.

“So, I said, you know, ‘I wish you good luck,'” he said, “and, you know, and we both went to our, you know, planes.”

President Joe Biden authorized Bout’s release. The exchange did not include Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine accused of spying and jailed in Russia since 2018.

Bout said he agreed to speak with ESPN because he believes the U.S. and Russia “have a common ground to at least have normal relation between our countries.”

In April, during Griner’s first news conference since her detainment in Russia, the WNBA All-Star spoke of her resilience and gratitude and of how she used humor to manage during her experience. The two-time Olympic gold medalist who has played professionally in Russia and China said she would not play internationally again unless it’s for the U.S. national team. She also spoke of the need to raise awareness of other U.S. detainees overseas.

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