August 5, 2022 | Foreign Policy

We Cannot Risk Another Bout With Viktor Bout

I oversaw the U.S. effort to capture the Russian arms dealer. Here’s what Joe Biden should know before trading him away.
August 5, 2022 | Foreign Policy

We Cannot Risk Another Bout With Viktor Bout

I oversaw the U.S. effort to capture the Russian arms dealer. Here’s what Joe Biden should know before trading him away.

The Biden administration has reportedly offered to exchange notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout for two Americans held hostage by Russia: basketball star Brittney Griner and former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan. Before going through with this trade, it would behoove U.S. President Joe Biden to remember just how dangerous Bout was—and how much damage his release could do to U.S. national security.

I served in government for 35 years, the last four of them as assistant administrator and chief of operations for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), from 2004 to 2008. In that capacity, I had ultimate oversight over the operation that led to Bout’s arrest and incarceration.

Believed to be a former officer in Moscow’s military intelligence directorate, the GRU, Bout began dealing Soviet-made weapons in the 1990s. By 2003, he had become the world’s preeminent arms trafficker, flooding weapons to U.S.-designated terrorist organizations, insurgent groups, narcotics cartels, and rogue regimes all over the world.

Bout’s vast international enterprise could “transport tanks, helicopters and weapons by the tons to virtually any point in the world,” according to the U.S. government. He did particular damage in Africa, where insurgent and terrorist groups slaughtered hundreds of thousands of innocents with his weapons, inspiring the Nicolas Cage film Lord of War. Weapons that Bout sold to the Taliban were used against U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

Unsurprisingly, Bout’s exploits made him a top target of the U.S. government. The Treasury Department imposed sanctions against him in 2004, freezing his substantial financial assets in the United States, which also encouraged other nations to follow suit. In 2006, the White House tasked the DEA with bringing Bout—along with various other high-profile criminals who had previously been untouchable—to justice with the use of recently enacted counter-narcoterrorism laws.

Two years hence, the Royal Thai Police, collaborating with the DEA, arrested Bout in Bangkok. He was apprehended while meeting with DEA operatives posing as members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a U.S.-designated terrorist organization and top global cocaine producer believed to have previously bought weapons from Bout.

Trading Bout would also encourage Moscow and other rogue regimes to take Americans hostage.

A U.S. court later sentenced the arms trafficker to 25 years in prison for conspiring to sell FARC millions of dollars’ worth of man-portable surface-to-air missiles and other weapons, which he explicitly acknowledged would be used against U.S. personnel in Colombia. He and FARC “have the same enemy,” Bout declared during the meeting with the DEA operatives, saying he’d been “fighting the United States … for 10 to 15 years.”

Trading Bout away wouldn’t just be a slap in the face of the law enforcement officers and operatives who labored to bring Bout down, many of them risking their lives in the process. It would also pose a grave threat to the national security of the United States and its allies.

As experts on Russia often quip, there’s really no such thing as a “former” Russian intelligence officer. Indeed, even after formally leaving the GRU, Bout enjoyed the backing of—and at times took assignments from—his former employer.

That likely explains why Moscow has fought so hard to get him back, in keeping with a long-standing Soviet and Russian tradition of doggedly pursuing captured intelligence officers. Following Bout’s arrest, the Russian government denounced the charges and summoned the Thai ambassador in Moscow. It then covertly deployed money and influence in an attempt to scuttle his extradition to the United States. In the years since, Moscow has repeatedly offered to swap Bout for Whelan.

If Bout returns to Moscow, one prays the ever-paranoid Russian intelligence services will view him with suspicion, fearing he may have been flipped by the U.S. government.

But Moscow could just as easily put him back to work planning and executing clandestine supply missions in support of Russian proxies like the Wagner Group in Africa, Venezuela, and other hot spots. Bout could also make a useful vessel for arms deliveries to client states as well as subversive actors in NATO countries or their backyards, a job for which Russian intelligence has been known to use criminals in the past. No one in the world appears to be better at this work then Bout.

Trading Bout would also encourage Moscow and other rogue regimes to take Americans hostage, exacerbating the precedent set by Biden’s exchange of Russian-held American Trevor Reed for another U.S.-imprisoned Russian criminal earlier this year. We can expect Moscow to double down on taking Americans hostage to trade for the Russian cybercriminals—who also often moonlight for Russian intelligence—extradited to the United States by allied countries. It’s no wonder the Justice Department reportedly opposes trading Bout.

From my time in federal law enforcement, I know what Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan have endured. My heart goes out to them and their families, and I empathize with the U.S. officials who want to see them returned home. But before releasing Viktor Bout back into Moscow’s arms, I hope Biden will think long and hard about the threat this swap could pose to U.S. interests, including the other Americans whom Russia will be incentivized to kidnap or falsely imprison.

Michael Braun is the president of SAVA Workforce Solutions, a former chief of operations at the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, and a member of the board of advisors of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Center on Economic and Financial Power. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


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