Why The Kremlin's Gloating Over Viktor Bout Could Backfire Quickly
There’s been no shortage of boasting in Russia after the return of arms dealer Viktor Bout, in exchange for U.S. basketball player Brittney Griner. But even if Vladimir Putin showed his negotiating muscle, it’s a pyrrhic victory as too many other compatriots haven’t made it home alive..
In the dramatic footage of Thursday’s prisoner exchange, Viktor Bout barely seems to notice Brittney Griner, despite the American basketball player’s towering height. Instead, as he walked across the UAE airport tarmac, the convicted Russian arms dealer fixed his attention on the lead Russian agent walking in front of Griner during the handover.
The warm embrace between the two men and Bout’s smile (the agent’s face is pixelated) is a reminder for all the world to see that Bout was a prized asset of the Kremlin’s inner circle.
Since his arrest in 2008, the Russian Foreign Ministry had been ceaseless in their support of the so-called “merchant of death.” Back at his 2012 sentencing in the U.S., Russian officials had declared that the long list of charges against Bout were “unfounded” and “biased” attacks by politically motivated American forces.
An honest businessman and patriot?
In a book published last year, Russian journalist Alexander Gassiouk, published a book in 2021 to reveal the “true” story of Bout where he cites senior Kremlin figures and quotes his wife saying the now 55-year-old was an “honest businessman and a great patriot, convicted of crimes he did not commit.”
Yet by virtually all accounts Bout was an internationally renowned arms dealer, who is believed to have worked from within Russian intelligence to support Moscow’s foreign policy objectives. France’s Le Figaro called Bout the “big fish” brought home by Putin.
Ultimately, the release plays to both sides of the public image Putin has honed. For many ordinary Russians, he’s seen as having worked hard to win the release of a wrongly imprisoned compatriot. Images of Bout’s return late Thursday night were running all across Russian television, as he was greeted at the airport by loved ones. Bout's mother, speaking to Russia 24 network, gushed her gratitude for the Kremlin’s work on the release. “Of course, it’s thanks to our president, Vladimir Putin, I am so grateful. I give a low maternal bow to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, headed by Sergei Lavrov,” she said. “Their diplomats, employees [...] give hope that their homeland is behind them, that their homeland has not forgotten.”
A big win for the Kremlin
But no less important for Putin is the image of the unbeatable negotiator, winning the release of a convicted arms trafficker in exchange for a women’s basketball player accused of a monumentally small drug crime (traces of cannabis oil in her bag).
Boastings on Russian social media were in no short supply, noting the trading of a ‘weapons baron’ for the price of one WNBA player. Spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, Maria Zakharova, posted a celebratory video to her telegram channel, saying: ‘Viktor Bout returned to the homeland!’.
Russian political analyst Sergei Markov declared the deal a huge win for the Kremlin: “They gave away an ordinary girl … The exchange with Westerners was as it should be: always in our favor.’
Bout on the plane Thursday heading back to Moscow
© Fsb/TASS via ZUMA
PR goes only so far
One popular Russian telegram channel wrote the exchange was an ‘illustration of the slogan "We will not abandon our own"’ which has come to be associated with Russia protecting its forces fighting on the frontline in Ukraine. “These are not empty words,” the channel wrote, “We do not abandon our own either in Crimea, or in Donbas, or in an American prison.”
And yet, in that Telegram post is the deeper and darker truth that Putin must face once the gloss of the triumphant prisoner exchange fades. There are indeed plenty of Russians not coming home alive. The growing numbers of dead troops on the battlefield in Ukraine, now estimated to be close to 80,000, is what Russians are talking about most days.
Only last month Russia was forced to withdraw from Kherson one of its prized ‘annexed’ territories after a major Ukrainian counterattack. One win for Putin’s PR team, the return of a member of the Kremlin elite, surely cannot cover up the waves of setbacks and sanctions and a war that looks increasingly un-winnable for Russia.