WASHINGTON — Earlier this week, Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout received a high-level visitor at the Marion, Ill., federal prison where he is serving a 25-year sentence for terrorism: Russian Ambassador to the United States Anatoly Antonov, who subsequently told reporters that Bout, nicknamed “the Merchant of Death” for his dealings with Iran, Libya and other oppressive regimes, “very much wants to return to the Motherland” and supports Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Antonov said that Bout, who was once a translator in the Soviet military, had a message of encouragement for the beleaguered Russian troops carrying out the faltering invasion of Ukraine launched by the Kremlin in February: “The main thing is victory. We must not stop. Only forward.”
Arrested by Thai authorities in 2008, Bout was subsequently extradited to the United States and indicted on charges of selling weapons to the Colombian guerrilla group known as FARC, with the knowledge that those weapons would be used to kill Americans. He was convicted on federal terrorism charges in 2011.
“This is a man of generous spirit, this is a man of tremendous knowledge,” Antonov said of Bout, who has apparently been learning Chinese and Farsi. “He continues to study even here.”
The ambassador’s visit took place on Wednesday. He and Bout met in prison for more than 90 minutes. Antonov said he assured Bout that “we at the embassy will do everything to make things easier for him. We will show him support. We will do everything to get him home quickly. He is counting on — waiting for — a decision from Moscow.”
The visit raised expectations of an imminent prisoner exchange between Russia and the United States involving Bout and Brittney Griner, an American basketball player who is now serving a nine-year prison sentence in Russia for drug possession.
But both U.S. and Russian officials played down the significance of Wednesday’s development, saying it was unrelated to any prisoner exchange.
“We have not received any proposals from the State Department,” Antonov said, suggesting that the decision on Bout’s fate ultimately rested with the Kremlin.
The Biden administration has been working for months to free Griner, who was arrested in March at a Moscow airport after cartridges containing cannabis were found in her luggage. She was en route to the Russian city of Ekaterinburg, where she plays during the WNBA off-season.
In addition to Griner, Russia has custody of Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine who was arrested in 2018 on espionage charges. There are also less high-profile Americans serving sentences in Russian prisons, including Pennsylvania teacher Marc Fogel, who was arrested, like Griner, on cannabis charges.
“We would not speculate on the motives of the Russian ambassador’s visit,” an administration official told Yahoo News. “The United States continues to pursue every avenue to secure Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan’s release, but as the president said earlier this week, we have not seen movement from Russia. They need to accept the United States’ offer or make a serious counteroffer and negotiate in good faith.”
President Biden has vowed to bring both Griner and Whelan home — and has faced persistent public pressure to do so.
Earlier this week, Griner’s attorney in Russia told the New York Times that she is “not yet absolutely convinced that America will be able to take her home. She is very worried about what the price of that will be, and she is afraid that she will have to serve the whole sentence here in Russia.”