Notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout gave his first interview to a Russian state news outlet since he was exchanged for American basketball player Brittney Griner just hours after landing in Moscow.
Conducting the interview was Russian-spy-turned-state-news-correspondent Maria Butina, who was expelled from the United States in 2019 after spending more than a year behind bars.
Bout described the 14 years he spent in a U.S. prison, a medium-security facility in Marion, Illinois.
“Mostly, my fellow inmates were sympathetic toward Russia, or at least, if they knew nothing about it, they would ask me questions,” he said.
Bout downplayed the significance of the prisoner exchange, which saw the WNBA star return to Texas on Thursday after spending 10 months in a Russian prison on drug-smuggling charges.
“To consider why they exchanged me now — it’s unhelpful,” Bout told Butina. “They exchanged me, and that’s that. I don’t think that I am important to Russian politics. We just don’t leave our people behind.”
Bout added that it was not a sign of weakness on the part of the Biden administration to exchange Griner for him.
“I wouldn’t say that the Americans caved in by exchanging me,” Bout said. “If the agreement was reached, it means that common ground was found that satisfied both sides.”
Bout was once described as the world’s most prolific arms dealer and dubbed the “Merchant of Death,” with alleged ties to Russian security services. He was arrested in 2008 in Thailand and extradited to the U.S. in 2010.
He was convicted in 2011 after a trial in New York on terrorism charges for conspiring to kill Americans by selling tens of millions of dollars worth of weapons to the FARC narco-terror group based in Colombia and sentenced to 25 years in federal prison.
Bout was also accused of selling weapons to the Taliban in Afghanistan and oppressive African regimes. The 2005 Nicolas Cage film Lord of War is based on his alleged exploits.
He was slated to remain in prison until 2029 at the earliest.
In his interview, Bout insisted that he was innocent.
“There was nothing,” Bout said of the charges against him, adding that there were “probably thousands and thousands and thousands” of cases like his and that he was caught up in geopolitics.
Bout’s release was celebrated in Russia, which had asked for his extradition a decade ago and considered him the victim of an unjust prosecution.
“Hero of our time,” read a description of the interview posted on YouTube.
Bout embraced the role of national martyr in his interview and backed the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“Everything that happened to me is now happening to our country,” he said, citing the condemnation Russia has received since invading Ukraine.
“I am proud that I am Russian and that Putin is our president. I honestly don’t understand why we didn’t do this earlier,” he said of the invasion.
Bout noted that his time in solitary confinement was incredibly challenging — “Yes, there was panic. Yes, it was very difficult” — and he complained about American prison food, primarily the lack of garlic and fresh herbs.
Still, he claimed he was at peace and held no bitterness toward the U.S.
“You have to learn to forgive,” Bout said.