Russia Hints at Linking Griner’s Case to Fate of ‘Merchant of Death’

WASHINGTON — She is an American professional basketball star, accused of carrying hashish oil in her luggage.

He is a notorious Russian arms dealer known as the “Merchant of Death,” serving a 25-year federal prison sentence for conspiring to sell weapons to people who said they planned to kill Americans.

And the Kremlin appears interested in linking their fates, in a potential deal with the Biden administration that would free both.

The vast disparity between the cases of Brittney Griner and Viktor Bout highlights the extreme difficulty President Biden would face if he sought a prisoner exchange to free Ms. Griner, the detained W.N.B.A. player, from detention in Moscow. The Biden administration, reluctant to create an incentive for the arrest or abduction of Americans abroad, would be hard-pressed to justify the release of a villainous figure like Mr. Bout.

At the same time, Mr. Biden is under pressure to free Ms. Griner, who was arrested at a Moscow-area airport in February and whom the State Department classified in May as “wrongfully detained.” That reflects concern that the Kremlin considers her leverage in the tense confrontation between the United States and Russia over Ukraine. Last week, dozens of groups representing people of color, women and L.G.B.T.Q. Americans sent a letter urging Mr. Biden to “make a deal to get Brittney back home to America immediately and safely.”

Ms. Griner’s trial started on Friday was adjourned until next Thursday.

Mr. Bout, 55, a former Soviet military officer who made a fortune in global arms trafficking before he was caught in a federal sting operation, could be the price for any deal. Russian officials have pressed Mr. Bout’s case for years, and in recent weeks Russian media outlets have directly linked his case to Ms. Griner’s. Some, including the state-owned Tass news service, have even claimed that talks with Washington for a possible exchange are already underway, something that U.S. officials will not confirm.

Mr. Bout’s New York-based lawyer, Steve Zissou, said in an interview that Russian officials are pressing to free Mr. Bout, who was convicted in 2011 of offering to sell weapons, including antiaircraft missiles, to federal agents posing as members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. Mr. Zissou said that he met with Anatoly I. Antonov, Russia’s ambassador to the United States, in June in Washington and that Mr. Antonov told him the release of Mr. Bout was a very high priority for the Russian government.

“It has been communicated to the American side very clearly that they’re going to have to get real on Viktor Bout if they expect any further prisoner exchanges,” Mr. Zissou said. “My sense of this is that no American is going home unless Viktor Bout is sent home with them.”

U.S. officials have declined to substantiate that notion and won’t discuss any potential deal to free Ms. Griner. The State Department as a matter of practice dismisses questions about prisoner exchanges around the world, warning that they set a dangerous precedent.

“Using wrongful detention as a bargaining chip represents a threat to the safety of everyone traveling, working and living abroad,” the department’s spokesman, Ned Price, recently said.

Mr. Biden did agree to a prisoner exchange in April, in which Russia released Trevor Reed, a former U.S. Marine from Texas who had been held since 2019 on charges of assaulting two police officers. The United States in return freed Konstantin Yaroshenko, a pilot sentenced in 2011 to 20 years in prison for drug smuggling. But White House officials stressed that Mr. Reed’s failing health made his case exceptional.

Many people have expressed support for Ms. Griner, a star athlete and basketball icon. Less obvious is the Russian government’s solidarity with an organized crime titan linked to terrorists and war criminals. In December, a government building in Moscow exhibited two dozen of Mr. Bout’s pencil sketches and other artwork produced from his cell in a federal penitentiary building near Marion, Ill.

By the time of his arrest in 2008, Mr. Bout (pronounced “boot”) was so known that an arms-trafficking character played by Nicolas Cage in the 2005 film “Lord of War” was based on his life.

Born in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, he attended a Russian military college and served as a Soviet air force officer.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Mr. Bout began making money ferrying cargo between continents. U.S. officials say he soon became one of the world’s top arms dealers, transporting weapons from the former Soviet military in Ilyushin transport planes, with a particularly lucrative business in war-torn African countries like Liberia and Sierra Leone. Mr. Bout denies that he knowingly trafficked arms.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the United States and European nations were sure that Mr. Bout’s…

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