Viktor Bout says he wished Brittney Griner luck during prisoner swap



Viktor Bout, the notorious Russian arms dealer swapped in a prisoner exchange for U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner, said he wished the WNBA player luck as the pair briefly passed one another in Abu Dhabi last week.

“I wished her good luck, she even extended her hand,” Bout, who is nicknamed the “Merchant of Death,” told Russia’s state-run RT television network Saturday. “Our tradition is to wish everyone good luck and happiness.”

Asked if Griner engaged with him during the high-level exchange, the 55-year-old said: “Yes, she did and I felt she was very positive towards me.”

Edited video clips of the pair shared by Russian state media on Thursday does not appear to show the two conversing, and Griner has not commented on the alleged interaction. In the footage, Griner can be seen flanked by three Russian men in suits and Bout accompanied by an American man in khakis. The two walk by one another on the tarmac, plane engines whirring in the background, before Bout embraces the Russian men and Griner leaves with the American.

Russian state media released this edited footage of the prisoner swap between Brittney Griner and Viktor Bout on Dec. 8. (Video: Russian state media)

In his Saturday interview, Bout also expressed support for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, saying he believes Moscow should have launched action “sooner.”

“I fully support it,” he said of the war. “If I had the opportunity and the necessary skills, I would certainly volunteer.”

His interview was conducted by Marina Butina, a Russian agent convicted and jailed in the United States for conspiring to infiltrate the National Rifle Association and other organizations without registering with authorities. She was released and deported back to Russia in October 2019.

Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist who was set to play in Russia during the WNBA offseason, was arrested at an airport near Moscow in February. She was sentenced to 9½ years in prison after bringing vape cartridges containing a small amount of cannabis oil in her luggage, which is illegal in Russia. Griner said it was an honest mistake and her lawyers said she had a prescription to treat chronic pain and other conditions.

Who is Viktor Bout, Russian arms dealer swapped for Brittney Griner?

Bout was serving a 25-year sentence at a medium-security prison in Illinois for conspiring to kill U.S. nationals and selling weapons to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) when President Biden approved his release and commuted his sentence. The Kremlin had long called for Bout’s release, calling his conviction “unlawful.”

In a separate Friday interview with RT, also with Butina, Bout said it was difficult to describe his new freedom.

“It’s hard to even find the right words to describe it all,” he said, before adding he did not believe himself to be “any way important” to Russian politics or Putin.

“We don’t leave our own people behind, right?” he said of Russia’s fight for his release.

Russia wanted Viktor Bout back, badly. The question is: Why?

Griner touched down in San Antonio early Friday, ending a nearly 10-month saga that landed one of the world’s best women’s basketball players at the heart of U.S.-Russia tensions. Officials said Griner would receive medical treatment and other support after her detainment in Russia.

Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, celebrated her partner’s return home in a Saturday Instagram post, adding that the couple are recovering from their time apart.

“As BG and I start our journey to heal our minds, bodies, and spirits— I wanted to personally say thank you to some of the hands; seen and unseen, that helped make it possible for me to see my wife again!” she wrote.

Natalia Abbakumova, Miriam Berger, Mary Ilyushina, Arelis R. Hernández and Niha Masih contributed to this report.

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