In the West, he is known as a convicted illicit arms trafficker, “the merchant of death” who helped fuel wars around the world. But in Russia, Viktor Bout was welcomed home this week as something of a hero, or at least an innocent victim of American politics.
The Russian government, its allies and the relentlessly pro-Kremlin media hailed the release of Mr. Bout, 55, by the United States, in exchange for the American basketball star Brittney Griner, and claimed that it meant that President Vladimir V. Putin had bested President Biden.
It was the rare development they could seize on as a victory for Mr. Putin in a war against Ukraine and a showdown with the West that have gone poorly for Russia. And it came after years of Russian news media and officials repeatedly citing Mr. Bout’s case as a monstrous injustice and a major diplomatic irritant.
“Everyone will forget Griner tomorrow,” Yevgeny Popov, co-host of a news show on a state media channel and a member of the Russian Parliament, wrote on the app Telegram on Thursday. “Bout’s life is only beginning.”
When he stepped off the plane that carried him home after almost 15 years in prison, Mr. Bout was greeted by his wife, his mother and a camera crew from another state channel. He was interviewed by a third state news agency.
The Release of Brittney Griner
The American basketball star had been detained in Russia since February on charges of smuggling hashish oil into the country.
- Anxiety Turns to Relief: Brittney Griner’s supporters watched with dismay as her situation appeared to worsen over the summer. Now they are celebrating her release.
- The Russian Playbook: By detaining Ms. Griner, the Kremlin weaponized pain to get the United States to turn over a convicted arms dealer. Can the same tactic work in the war in Ukraine?
- A Test for Women’s Sports: The release was a victory for W.N.B.A. players and fans, who pushed furiously for it. But the athlete’s plight also highlighted gender inequities in sports.
What none of the reactions quite explained was why Mr. Bout, described by Russia as merely a businessman operating a small air freight company, mattered so much to the Kremlin, for so many years. There has long been speculation that he worked for a Russian spy agency, that his arms deals pursued Kremlin ends, that he had personal ties to high-level government figures, or some combination of such factors — all of which he has consistently denied.
Maria Butina, who served more than a year in prison in the United States for being an unregistered agent of Russia, conducted the first interview with him after his release, for the outlet RT. Ms. Butina, now a Russian legislator, called the exchange “a capitulation by America,” and asked about the high-level interest in his case.
“I don’t think I’m somehow important for Russian politics,” Mr. Bout replied. He added, “We do not abandon our own, right?”
But the Russian foreign ministry said it had been flooded with congratulations for his release, and noted how often the Kremlin had demanded his freedom. The government’s human rights commissioner, Tatyana Moskalkova, said, “I think everyone who followed the ordeal of this wonderful person, who had fallen victim to U.S. insinuations, is now filled with joy,” the Russian news agency Tass reported.
In the RT interview, Mr. Bout echoed Mr. Putin in describing Russia as a victim of Western schemes. “The West thinks that they didn’t finish us off in 1990, when the Soviet Union started to collapse,” he said. “They think they can destroy us again and divide Russia into many parts.”
But he did not fully parrot the Kremlin script, dodging suggestions that Mr. Biden was weak and Americans were Russophobic.
Mr. Bout was once a Soviet military officer and translator, but Western governments and human rights groups say that in the 1990s and 2000s he was one of the world’s leading weapons dealers, defying international sanctions to sell to factions in many conflicts, particularly in Africa. The 2005 film “Lord of War,” starring Nicolas Cage, was based loosely on him.
In March 2008, U.S. agents arrested Mr. Bout in a sting operation in Bangkok, posing as Colombian guerrillas who wanted to buy weapons, including antiaircraft missiles that they said would be used to kill American pilots. Over strenuous Russian objections, Thailand ultimately agreed to extradite him to the United States for trial.
In 2011, he was convicted in New York of conspiring to kill American citizens, conspiring to provide support to a foreign terrorist organization and conspiring to acquire and export illegal weapons. He was sentenced to 25 years in federal prison.
At the time, the Russian foreign ministry denounced the court as “clearly carrying out a political order,” aided by “the smear campaign unleashed by the American media.”
If not for Mr. Biden’s intervention to secure Ms. Griner’s freedom, Mr. Bout would not have been eligible for release for another seven years.