After US-Russia Prisoner Swap, Moscow May Push Harder For Release of Convicted Arms Trafficker

Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout behind bars in Bangkok, Thailand in April 2008. (Photo by Saeed Khan/AFP via Getty Images)

Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout behind bars in Bangkok, Thailand in April 2008. (Photo by Saeed Khan/AFP via Getty Images)

( – For more than a decade, the Russian government has been demanding that the United States return two of its citizens, serving long prison terms for serious offenses after being arrested in circumstances which the Kremlin says amounted to kidnapping.

Now that one of the two, convicted drug smuggler Konstantin Yaroshenko, has been sent home in a negotiated swap for former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed, the pressure is likely to grow for a similar arrangement to secure the release of the other – notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout, nicknamed the “merchant of death.”

Yaroshenko, a pilot who was sentenced in 2011 to 20 years’ imprisonment after being convicted of conspiring to smuggle cocaine into the United States, was exchanged in Turkey for Reed, 30, incarcerated in Russia since 2019 after being accused of assaulting a Russian police officer while drunk and sentenced to a nine-year jail term.

U.S. officials questioned the fairness of his trial, and in recent months there has been “growing concern” about his health, a senior administration said on background on Wednesday.

The senior official stressed that negotiations had been narrowly focused on imprisoned Americans, and did not signal any shift in the U.S. approach to Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.

Another of those imprisoned Americans is Paul Whelan, also a former U.S. Marine, arrested in Moscow in late 2018 and sentenced to 16 years in prison on spying charges.

Former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan at a court hearing in Moscow in August 2019. (Photo by Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images)

Former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan at a court hearing in Moscow in August 2019. (Photo by Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images)

Whelan denied the charges, and the case prompted speculation that the Russians seized him in the hope of negotiating an exchange for Russians jailed in the U.S.

U.S. officials have repeatedly brought up the cases of Reed and Whelan with the Russians, privately and publicly. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called for their releases during his first meeting in Moscow with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, last May, as did President Biden when he met with President Vladimir Putin in Geneva a month later.

For even longer, Russia has been raising with American officials the cases of Yaroshenko and Bout

As long ago as 2013, when Moscow released a list of 18 Americans subject to visa bans and asset freezes – in retaliation for the Magnitsky Act blacklist of Russians accused of rights abuses – it included on the list law enforcement officials involved in the prosecutions of Bout and Yaroshenko.

Lavrov told then-Secretary of State John Kerry in 2016 that Bout and Yaroshenko had been entrapped by U.S. agents who “introduc(ed) themselves as drug dealers and tried to convince Bout and Yaroshenko to render them transport services.”

Russia also accused the U.S. of effectively “kidnapping” the two.

Yaroshenko was arrested in a DEA undercover operation in Liberia in 2010 and extradited to the United States.

Justice officials described the operation leading to their arrests as having “succeeded in disrupting a dangerous network of South American-based narcotics traffickers, who conspired to exploit West African countries as trans-shipment hubs for tons of cocaine.”

Bout was arrested in a sting operation in Thailand in 2008 and extradited to the U.S. two years later. Convicted of arms smuggling, he was sentenced in 2012 to 25 years’ imprisonment.

Bout’s conviction was for conspiring to sell weapons to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), at the time a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization. (It was delisted five months ago.)

His illicit trade, however, had reportedly helped to fuel numerous other deadly conflicts, including those waged by Liberian warlord Charles Taylor.

In 2005 the U.S. Treasury Department designated his arms trafficking network under an executive order targeting associates of Taylor.

The department said that “information available to the U.S. government shows that Bout profited $50 million from supplying the Taliban with military equipment when they ruled Afghanistan.”

Further, it said Bout had sold or brokered weapons that had “helped fuel conflicts and support U.N. sanctioned regimes in Afghanistan, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Sudan.”

Despite the gravity of the crimes for which they were convicted, Russia has long maintained that Bout and Yaroshenko are victims of injustice, while it says Reed and Whelan committed serious offenses.

When State Department spokesman Ned Price last December released a statement marking the third anniversary of Whelan’s detention, the Russian Embassy in D.C. retorted with a tweet saying that “unlike Russians, who are often detained and convicted by (the U.S.) under far-fetched pretext, P. Whelan and T. Reed were arrested while committing serious crimes.”

The tweet ended with hashtags calling for freedom for Bout and Yaroshenko.

With Reed and Yaroshenko now returned to their respective countries, the focus of the two sides’ quiet discussions could shift more directly to Whelan and Bout.

When Whelan was sentenced in 2020, his Russian lawyer said he believed the Russian government wants to do a deal involving freedom for Bout.

After Biden took office, the same lawyer told Reuters that talks between Russian and U.S. officials on a possible exchange had gotten underway.

Bout’s wife has also spoken of hopes to have her husband exchanged for Whelan.

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