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For Putin, Viktor Bout Is A Consolation Prize In A War He’s Still Losing

There’s been no shortage of gloating in Russia after the return of Viktor Bout. But even if the Kremlin showed its negotiating muscle, it’s a pyrrhic victory as too many other compatriots haven’t made it home alive..

For Putin, Viktor Bout Is A Consolation Prize In A War He’s Still Losing

Vitkor Bout

Cameron Manley

In the dramatic footage of Thursday’s prisoner exchange, Viktor Bout barely seems to notice Brittany 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.

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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.’

photo of viktor bout talking on a cell phone

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.

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Geopolitics

Sham Trial, Public Hanging: The Method To Iran's "Exemplary" Execution Of Protester

By executing a protester after a rapid trial, Iran's clerical regime has taken its clampdown on the once-in-a-generation uprising to a new level. Observers fear there are more to come soon.

Photo of protesters holding photographs

Protesters against the Iranian regime at the Hague

ANP via ZUMA
Kayhan-London

-Analysis-

Iranians were infuriated by the Islamic judiciary's execution Thursday morning of a 23-year-old protester, Mohsen Shekari. Opposition media and Iranians on social media called it murder. The public hanging, on charges that Shekari took part in the stabbing of a state agent in Tehran, showed the regime is hellbent on crushing weeks of protests and silencing calls for regime change.

Shekari was arrested in protests in downtown Tehran on Sept. 25, and convicted of having injured a state security agent with a knife. The formal charges against him — and various other jailed protesters — was "waging war on God" a part of the Iranian penal code that is punishable by death, though he barely was afforded minimal legal proceedings. According to reports, Shekari was not given the right to select his own lawyer, nor was he given a chance to defend himself at the sentencing trial.

An informed source told Kayhan-London that when a lawyer sought to take up Shekari's defense, prosecutors told him Shekari had waived his right to choose a lawyer. So the court assigned him one who was no doubt obedient to the judiciary.

There were various discrepancies in the case. The state agent stabbed in Tehran that day was reportedly wearing nothing to indicate his status as law enforcement — although he was busy beating demonstrators — nor was there even evidence to prove that Shekari had stabbed him.

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