Arms dealer at center of Griner prisoner exchange ‘as bad as they come’
PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) – When international arms dealer Viktor Bout was arrested in an undercover operation in 2008, the Kremlin demanded that he be sent back to his home in Russia. Bout was caught up in an undercover operation, attempting to sell weapons to men he believed to be Colombian rebels, hoping to target American citizens.
“The Russians were very focused on him serving his prison sentence in Russia,” said David A. Merkel, who was deputy undersecretary of state at the time. Merkel was assigned to Russia and dealt with the Kremlin. The United States did not move. And Merkel says he knew the kind of person the US authorities had arrested.
“I think he’s as bad as they come. he is without politics. he is without morals,” Merkel said. “He sold weapons to both sides during the Afghan civil war. He was selling weapons to any warlord who would give him diamonds or money in Africa,” he said.
Earlier this year, when Phoenix Mercury basketball star Brittney Griner was arrested in Russia, Merkel saw it as part of a pattern. Griner was accused of having an illegal cannabis product in her luggage, which she says was unintentional. But Merkel says the arrest fits a narrative.
“There is an alarming increase in this type of state-sponsored hostage-taking,” Merkel said. He described a scenario where rogue states detain innocent Americans in an attempt to use them as collateral to free bad actors detained in the United States.
That may be what happened in Griner’s case. The Biden administration is offering to trade Bout for Griner and another person detained in Russia, former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan.
When asked if he was okay with the decision to release Bout in exchange for Griner and Whelan, Merkel said it was a tough question to answer. “You want Mrs. Griner released. But Viktor Bout contributed to the mutilation and death of a large number of people around the world,” he said.
In fact, Bout was nicknamed “the merchant of death”. It also inspired a Hollywood movie. And his release is a controversial subject. “We are giving up an absolute war criminal,” said Rep. Ruben Gallego (D) Arizona, a former Marine.
But Gallego says he understands why the Biden administration is doing what it is doing to free Griner and Whelan. “I think it’s the job of every presidency to try to bring back as many of our citizens when they are detained overseas, especially unjustly as Brittney is,” Gallego said.
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