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Bout’s release threatens global security; it’s also an opportunity

AP Photo/Apichart Weerawong, File
FILE – In this May 19, 2009 file photo, alleged Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, once dubbed the “Merchant of Death,” looks out from inside a detention center at a criminal court in Bangkok, Thailand.

On Thursday, we woke up to news that the Biden administration had released the notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout in a prisoner swap for WNBA star Brittney Griner, who had been jailed in Russia. Bout is a monster, and while we celebrate Griner’s return home, the clock is ticking to ensure that freeing the “Merchant of Death” will not result in devastating security implications around the globe.

The threat is clear and present, as Bout has special expertise in Ukraine. 

As international arms trafficking investigators, we have tracked Bout and his associates for more than two decades and seen firsthand the carnage he knowingly facilitated.

This is a man who has trafficked planeloads of weapons to some of the most bloodthirsty dictators and regimes of our time, including the Taliban and former Liberian President Charles Taylor. Bout has fueled the killing of hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of people. And he has never publicly expressed an iota of remorse for his crimes. 

It seemed like Bout might finally be contained forever after a 2008 U.S. sting operation in Thailand caught him conspiring to traffic more than 700 surface-to-air missiles, 20,000 AK-47s, and five tons of plastic explosives to an avowed terrorist group. U.S. Drug Enforcement Agents posing as members of the terrorist group had explicitly told Bout of their intent to use the weapons to kill Americans.  

After his arrest, Bout lied under oath to evade extradition, telling a panel of Thai judges that he had come to Bangkok to further a government-to-government submarine deal between Thailand and Russia. Bout’s performance underscored not only his disrespect for the rule of law but also his deep-seated relationship with the Russian government. 

Now, freed seven years ahead of his scheduled August 2029 release date, Bout returns to his home country with a debt to pay to his savior Vladimir Putin. With Western sanctions crippling Russia’s military in Ukraine and other global hot spots, the Kremlin is in desperate need of his unique skill set. Bout, a master sanctions-buster, could certainly use his expertise and international connections to source the materiel needed to bolster Putin’s struggling war machine. 

This raises the specter of even more Russian atrocities against the Ukrainian people and would threaten human rights and security around the globe. In the absence of proper tracking, weapons used in the Ukrainian conflict could wind up on the international black market and, ultimately, in the hands of rogue regimes, terrorists, and criminals in other parts of the world. This is exactly what we’ve seen in Bout’s previous arms enterprises, and there is every reason to expect the same outcome today.

None of this is to say that the Biden administration should have left Griner in a Russian penal colony. Griner is a victim who unwittingly found herself in the crosshairs of a cruel and calculating dictator, who saw in her a chance to settle a score with the United States and retrieve a valuable asset. On a basic human level, the White House was justified in going to great lengths to bring her home. 

But with Bout free again, the U.S. needs to recommit itself to ensuring that he and others of his ilk are not able to carry on with their deadly business as usual.

We need more interagency cooperation and the prevention of domestic and international arms trafficking to be a top national priority. One powerful step for Congress and President Biden would be to create an office to evaluate and coordinate executive branch efforts to combat arms trafficking, similar to what the Office of National Drug Control Policy does in the anti-drug realm. A highly empowered director of this new office could advise the president on the best policies and strategies to contain major threats like a Bout-led transnational arms operation. 

Such an office would help maximize the effectiveness of initiatives to stanch the illicit flow of weapons not only into Ukraine and across Eastern Europe but also into Mexico and Central America, where guns trafficked from the U.S. are fueling a humanitarian crisis of historic proportions. 

The U.S. government has called Bout one of “the world’s most successful and sophisticated arms traffickers,” and “a businessman of the most dangerous order.” His release provides an opportunity to redouble our efforts to contain this one-man weapon of mass destruction and to counter arms trafficking wherever it is occurring. If we miss this chance, we could all pay a price — as gunrunners continue making a killing in their operations of mass murder.

Kathi Lynn Austin is a former United Nations arms trafficking expert and the executive director of the Conflict Awareness Project

Brian Freskos is the senior researcher and data analyst at the Conflict Awareness Project.

Tags arms dealer arms trafficking Biden Brittney Griner Brittney Griner Griner release Griner return Joe Biden National security Russian sanctions Terrorist organization terrorists Ukraine Viktor Bout Viktor Bout Vladimir Putin weapons Western sanctions on Russia

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