Tom Pasquarello’s phone started buzzing around 7 a.m. on Thursday.
“Did you hear the news?” a friend asked.
“What news?” Pasquarello responded.
The news turned out to be the undoing of one of Pasquarello’s proudest achievements from his tenure as a regional director with the Drug Enforcement Administration. The U.S. had released the notorious Russian arms trafficker who Pasquarello helped take down 14 years ago with an audacious sting operation.
Viktor Bout, the so-called “Merchant of Death” and the inspiration for the 2005 Nicolas Cage film, “Lord of War,” is who Russia received back from the U.S. on Thursday in a prisoner swap for American basketball star Brittney Griner. Bout, 55, was serving a 25-year sentence in an Illinois federal prison on charges of providing weapons to terrorists and conspiring to kill Americans.
To Pasquarello, freeing Bout early was a troubling decision with potential “huge repercussions.” The former DEA agent argues that the U.S. State Department has a responsibility to figure out how to bring Griner and other wrongfully detained Americans home without offering a prisoner exchange or making other major concessions.
“I’m kind of in disbelief that someone with the potential to orchestrate arms deals that can kill Americans anywhere in the world would be traded for a prisoner,” Pasquarello told Yahoo Sports on Thursday. “I think this sends a terrible message that the U.S. will negotiate, that the U.S. will make concessions and that, if an American is held overseas, there’s always the potential that the U.S. will acquiesce to the demands of people like [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and bail them out.”
Pasquarello’s personal connection to Bout may color how he views Thursday’s prisoner swap, but he is hardly alone in his assessment that the Biden administration gave up too much to get Griner home. Other foreign policy experts also wince at the obvious imbalance between Bout’s crimes and Griner’s.
The U.S. alleges Bout smuggled military-grade weapons to rogue leaders and insurgent groups across Africa and beyond, elevating conflicts from machetes and one-shot rifles to grenade launchers and AK-47s. Russia alleges Griner flew into Moscow on Feb. 17 with vape cartridges containing less than one ounce of cannabis oil in her luggage.
Yuval Weber, an expert on Russian military and political strategy, told Yahoo Sports that Bout’s release may “incentivize rogue state and non-state actors to kidnap or imprison on trumped-up charges more Americans.” Weber also expressed concern that Bout might reprise his former role as an operative who exported arms to Russian allies at the Kremlin’s bidding.
“In sports terms,” said Weber, a distinguished fellow at Marine Corps University's Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Future Warfare, "we just traded a GOAT first-ballot Hall of Famer who still has many years of productivity left for a hometown Division III star."
— philip lewis (@Phil_Lewis_) December 8, 2022
How Viktor Bout became an arms trafficker
Exactly how big a threat is Viktor Bout? The answer depends on who you ask. Russian state media calls him a “businessman” and an “entrepreneur.” His former website said he’s a “born salesman with undying love for aviation.” A longtime DEA agent once described him as “one of the most dangerous men on the face of the Earth.”
Bout’s rise to prominence began during the early 1990s when he astutely saw opportunity amid the chaos of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Piles of weapons and ammunition lay discarded in dusty warehouses. Military planes sat abandoned on Soviet runways because there was no money for maintenance or fuel, and no one to fly them.
Relying on military and intelligence connections he had previously made, Bout acquired several Antonov cargo planes known for their heavy airlift capacity and ability to land in treacherous terrain. Those became the starting point for a private fleet of more than 50 Soviet cargo planes and a network of air-freight companies that hauled goods to and from far-flung conflict zones.
Bout’s planes reportedly carried anything from fresh-cut flowers, to frozen food, to U.N. peacekeepers, but authorities say he raked in most of his profit delivering arms and ammunition from old Soviet stockpiles. At Bout’s peak, according to the U.S Department of Treasury, he had “the capacity to transport tanks, helicopters and weapons by the tons to virtually any point in the world.”
The ability to supply that sort of firepower rapidly and with pinpoint accuracy helped Bout build a client list that included some of the world’s most notorious leaders. He made $50 million supplying the Taliban with military equipment, according to the U.S. Department of Treasury. He also allegedly inflamed conflicts in Liberia, Congo, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Sudan.
Angola was one country where Bout allegedly defied United Nations sanctions prohibiting arms trafficking and U.S. peace-making efforts. A former high-ranking U.S. State Department official told Yahoo Sports in May that in the mid-to-late 1990s, Bout sold Soviet-era arms to both sides of the Angolan Civil War — the Marxist government and the UNITA rebels seeking to overthrow it.
“He was undermining our efforts to create peace in Angola,” the former State Department source said. “He didn't care what side of the issue he was on. He was in it for profit.”
Bout consistently stayed one step ahead of international investigators by repeatedly registering and re-registering his planes in far-flung countries, enabling him to avoid inspections and oversight. It also helped that Bout had the protection of the Russian government, enabling him to retreat to Moscow after global law enforcement agencies shined a spotlight on the work he had long been doing in the shadows.
By 2007, the U.S. deemed Bout such a threat that it tasked the DEA with setting up a sting operation to catch him. The DEA crafted a plan to have agents pose as members of a violent Colombian rebel faction seeking missiles that could shoot down American aircrafts and arms that could kill American forces.
The sting operation culminated in March 2008 when the DEA successfully baited Bout into leaving his Russian safe haven and flying to Bangkok to finalize the deal. After Bout's meeting with undercover operatives ended with him shoved up against a wall with his hands in the air, Pasquarello entered the room.
"Do you have anything to say?" Pasquarello asked Bout.
"The game’s over," the arms trafficker coolly responded.
Russia plays hardball
Bout might have served the entirety of his 25-year sentence in federal prison were it not for what Griner has called an “honest mistake.” The U.S. had repeatedly rejected the Kremlin’s prisoner exchange proposals involving Bout until one of America’s most well-known women’s basketball players went on trial in Russia for drug possession and drug smuggling.
In July, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that the U.S. had offered Russia a “substantial proposal.” The offer was believed to be a two-for-one trade exchanging Bout for Griner and Paul Whelan, a retired Marine detained in Russia for the past four years on espionage charges that both he and the State Department say are bogus.
While Blinken spoke directly to Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov and urged him to agree to the proposed exchange, Russia refused to include Whelan in a deal then or in subsequent negotiations. President Joe Biden said Thursday that the U.S. either had to agree to trade Griner for Bout or there would be no deal at all.
“Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul’s case different than Brittney’s,” Biden said. “And while we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul’s release, we are not giving up. We will never give up.”
The Bout-for-Griner trade is the second high-profile prisoner exchange the U.S. and Russia have negotiated this year despite mounting tensions between the two former Cold War enemies. In April, the U.S. secured the release of Marine veteran Trevor Reed in exchange for a Russian pilot serving a 20-year federal prison sentence for conspiracy to smuggle cocaine into America.
How problematic these prisoner swaps are is a subject of debate. Some foreign policy experts insist that high-profile prisoner exchanges like this one incentivize Russia and other countries to seize more Americans, but former State Department foreign services officer David Salvo told Yahoo Sports he’s unconvinced that’s the case.
“Maybe I’m being naive or overly optimistic, but I don’t think you’re going to see an exponential rise in cases of Americans being jailed to extract leverage over us,” said Salvo, the deputy director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy and an expert on Russian foreign policy.
“These cases are still exceedingly rare. This happens so infrequently that incentivizing it shouldn’t factor into the calculus. We had to do what we had to do to bring our people home. We got one of the two back so far. It’s a bittersweet victory in that regard, but that has to be the ultimate goal.”
Experts say that securing Bout’s release was a point of pride for Putin because the arms trafficker is a former intelligence agent who displayed loyalty to Russia. Bout operated with state protection throughout his arms trafficking career and often served the government’s foreign policy interests once Putin rose to power.
Whether Bout is still as dangerous today as he was at the peak of his power isn’t fully clear.
Salvo admits that Bout “didn’t get his ‘Merchant of Death’ nickname for no reason,” but he points out that Bout has been on the sideline for 15 years.
“While I still think it’s possible he can be used again by Russian authorities to activate his network and wreak havoc,” Salvo said, “I’m skeptical he’s going to reemerge as the biggest arms dealer on the planet as soon as he lands in Russia.”
Pasquarello warns not to underestimate an adversary as crafty and experienced as Bout.
“I think it’s very easy for him to get back into business,” Pasquarello said. “I’ve heard that Viktor’s not a threat, that he can’t travel anymore, that he’s going to be isolated. He was like that for 10 years before we arrested him. He knew he couldn’t go anywhere and he still operated from his safe spots.”
It frustrates Pasquarello that the efforts of the DEA and its allies couldn’t keep Bout behind bars for longer. He doesn’t understand why the U.S. couldn’t get more detained Americans back in exchange for Bout, if the State Department had to include him in a deal at all.
“We couldn’t even get two people for the world’s most notorious weapons trafficker,” Pasquarello said, “for a man who has been responsible for more carnage and blood diamonds and insurrections and threats to democracy than anyone else in the world. How is that a negotiation? That’s like a free deal.”