I covered the wars and casualties of Bout’s arms trade in Sierra Leone, Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo as a Washington Post correspondent. The Nicolas Cage film “Lord of War” was loosely based on Bout, and I co-wrote with Stephen Braun a non-fiction account of the savagery he enabled. There are no words to describe the human toll of Bout’s activities on thousands of people, from armless amputated children in refugee camps to rural hamlets burned by marauding children traumatized to kill their own families.
Bout led an aviation and weapons empire from the fall of the Soviet Union until his arrest in Thailand in 2008. He built his business by transporting deadly weapons by the ton to buyers in exchange for cash, of diamonds and wood. He acted, according to his brother, as a simple taxi service – a driver with no responsibility to know the contents of the luggage of the passenger he was transporting. But he knew exactly what he was doing.
Besides arming the worst sectors of humanity, Bout made his fortune flying for the US military in Iraq during the war there. Ultimately, he was arrested while attempting to sell weapons to undercover Drug Enforcement Administration informants posing as buyers for Colombia’s notorious FARC guerrillas. At the meeting preceding his arrest, Bout offered a range of sophisticated weapons, helpfully adding that they could be used to kill US military advisers in Colombia.
Griner, on the other hand, was in Russia playing professional basketball just before Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine. Having proven herself to be one of the greatest players of all time, the unfortunate moment of her journey turned her into a terrified young woman illegally detained in brutal conditions for what would be a minor offense at best. And a pawn whose value the Russians immediately recognized. (Griner pleaded guilty Thursday to transporting cannabis oil, but his ultimate fate remains unclear.)
So why even consider the potential offer? First, Bout is a depleted force who will be out of prison in a few years anyway. His business depended on personal relationships and trust between parties. After being away from the company for over a decade, Bout has none of those left behind in the dark world he once operated in. Second, Bout needed access to a global network stretching from Afghanistan to Europe, Africa and South America. This network has evolved into several generations of new players, markets and gatekeepers. Bout has no currency in this world now.
Finally, Bout depended in the early years on the gross negligence of the former Soviet states to allow him to simply steal planes and weapons in a de facto privatization spree of one of the world’s most advanced arsenals. In his later years, he was held back by the Russian state under Putin, no longer able to freelance at will and unlimited access to huge arms caches. He’s unlikely to have any freedom of movement in the arms trade unless he’s in the direct service of Russian intelligence, and now he’s burned beyond his ability to be of any use. title whatever.
Many of those who led the operation to end Bout’s ability to enable crimes against humanity will disagree with me. The hunt for Bout has been long and arduous, and the operation that led to his arrest is one of the best spy thrillers. Diplomatic and Justice Department efforts to bring Bout to the United States for trial are testament to how a whole-of-government approach can work when done right. And the trial showed the world at least a small part of who Bout is and the monstrous nature of his crimes.
There should be no mercy for Bout and only his victims could offer forgiveness. But now there is a chance for an act of compassion for an innocent life; his low-risk release would be a fitting finale for someone who has caused so much harm. Bout has already lost what he valued most: his ability to move freely around the world and act with impunity as an agent of chaos serving his Russian handlers and his own interests. His freedom could not restore that, and he will forever be known as the Merchant of Death, a stain he can never remove.
If Griner regains her freedom, she finds the family fighting for her release, a spouse who works tirelessly on her behalf, and hopefully her rightful place among basketball’s pantheon of great players. It may not be perfect justice, but it’s a closer version than having an innocent person wrongfully imprisoned just to lock up a guilty person who can no longer inflict much more damage.