Released Russian arms dealer supports invasion of Ukraine

World

(NewsNation) — Viktor Bout, the notorious arms dealer Russia received in return for the release of WNBA star Brittney Griner, is speaking out in support of Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine.

The man known as the “Merchant of Death” strongly put his support behind the Russian military during an interview in Moscow.

“Like any Russian person, I honestly didn’t understand why we didn’t do it sooner,” Bout said in his first TV interview Saturday. “I’m entirely in support of it.”

Bout claims American authorities tested him psychologically. Sometimes, he claims, denying him food. Bout said he kept his spirits up and kept a picture of Putin in his cell.

“I’m proud that I’m a Russian person, and that Putin is our president,” Bout said in the interview.

Bout’s comments come the same weekend that Russian forces launched a drone strike that hit two energy facilities in Odesa, the Ukrainian port city. This left almost one and a half million Ukrainians without power. Ukraine forces launched an attack on a former hotel in Ukraine where it’s believed that scores of Russian soldiers were staying.

Bout’s attorney, Steve Zissou, told NewsNation that, despite Bout’s history of trafficking dangerous weapons often used to target Americans, his client is no longer a threat.

“Is he going to be actively involved, maybe in politics, maybe in helping other folks establishing a new business? Absolutely. But does the U.S. have anything to fear from him? Absolutely not,” Zissou said.

But some like former U.S. attorney Preet Bharara, who once prosecuted Bout, insist the U.S. can’t rule out Bout picking up where he left off, dealing arms and putting American lives at risk.

In an interview with NewsNation’s Leland Vittert, former DEA agent Derek Maltz, who once helped arrested Bout, echoed Bharara’s concerns.

“This guy was convicted of agreeing to move 800 surface-to-air missiles, 30,000 AK-47 firearms, 10 million rounds of ammunition, five tons of C4 plastic explosives, ultralight airplanes with grenade launchers to go after U.S. personnel in Colombia. My opinion is that the ‘Merchant of Death’ is back in action and is in Russia, and he will be very loyal to his dictator Putin, who is in a war right now killing innocent people,” Maltz said.

Nathan Sales, a counterterrorism expert and former State Department official, also weighed in on the exchange, calling Bout “about as bad as they get.”

“We should be clear that the United States paid an extraordinary price to get her (Griner) back,” Sales said in part. “This is a man who’s going to go right back to the battlefield, back to his old tricks. Vladimir Putin is going to find his skills and contacts very useful as he wages war on Ukraine.”

In this image made from video provided by Russian Federal Security Service, WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner sits in the plane as she flies to Abu Dhabi to be exchanged for Russian citizen Viktor Bout, in Russia, Friday, Dec. 9, 2022. (Russian Federal Security Service via AP)

Many in Congress, from both parties, have also wondered if the deal was wise, even if it did secure the release of Griner. Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) believes the U.S. gave up its bargaining leverage over Russia.

“We held the cards here. Okay, that’s their number one guy and from Russia that they wanted out. It’s shocking that we weren’t able to get Paul Whelan out to for again their number one guy,” Sen. Tuberville said.

Sales added: “We celebrate her (Griner’s) return, but we have just given up an enormous amount of leverage that we could have used to extract more concessions from Vladimir Putin. Putin won. Putin thinks he got the better deal.”

Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, worries about the potential precedent the deal sets.

Sen. Menendez said he’s happy to have Griner home, but added, “We cannot ignore that releasing Bout back into the world is deeply disturbing. We must stop inviting dictatorial and rogue regimes to use Americans overseas as bargaining chips.”

White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Sunday that if Bout does return to dealing arms and placing Americans at risk, the U.S. is going to do everything they can to properly hold him accountable. According to Kirby, officials conducted a national security assessment on Bout, but that whatever risk he posed was “manageable.”

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