Former Diplomat: Arms dealer at center of Griner prisoner swap “as bad as they come”

Merkel says Bout was caught in a sting operation, attempting to sell weapons to men he believed were Colombian rebels, hoping to target American citizens.
Published: Aug. 3, 2022 at 7:43 PM MST
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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) - When international arms dealer Viktor Bout was arrested in a sting operation in 2008, the Kremlin demanded that he be sent home to Russia. Bout was caught in a sting operation, attempting to sell weapons to men he believed were Colombian rebels, hoping to target American citizens.

“The Russians were quite focused on getting him to serve out his prison term in Russia,” said David A. Merkel, who was deputy assistant Secretary of State at the time. Merkel was assigned to Russia and dealt with the Kremlin. The US did not budge. And Merkel says he knew the kind of person the US authorities had arrested.

“I think he’s as bad as they come. he’s without politics. he’s without morals,” said Merkel. “He sold weapons to both sides in the Afghan civil war. He sold weapons to any warlord who would give him diamonds or cash in Africa,” he said.

Earlier this year, when Phoenix Mercury basketball star Brittney Griner was arrested in Russia, Merkel saw it as part of a pattern. Griner was accused of having an illegal cannabis product in her luggage, something she said was not intentional. But Merkel says the arrest fits a narrative.

“There’s an alarming increase in this kind of state-sponsored hostage-taking,” said Merkel. He described a scenario where rogue states take innocent Americans into custody for the purpose of using them as collateral to free bad actors in custody in the United States.

That may be what happened in Griner’s case. The Biden Administration is offering to trade Bout for Griner and another person held in custody in Russia, former US Marine Paul Whelan.

When asked if he agreed with the decision to free Bout in exchange for Griner and Whelan, Merkel said it was a difficult question to answer. “You want to see Ms. Griner go free. But Viktor Bout contributed to the maiming and death of a great number of people throughout the world,” he said.

In fact, Bout was nicknamed “The Merchant of Death.” He also inspired a Hollywood movie. And his release is a controversial topic. “We’re giving up an absolute war criminal,” said Rep. Ruben Gallego (D) Arizona, a former Marine.

But Gallego says he understands why the Biden Administration is doing what it is doing to free Griner and Whelan. “I think it’s the job of every Presidency to try to bring as many of our citizens back when they’re being held overseas, especially unjustly like Brittney is,” said Gallego.