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To free 2 Americans in Russia, the U.S. may have to trade a notorious arms smuggler

: [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: This story incorrectly identifies the 2005 Nicolas Cage movie as “Lord of Death.” It is “Lord of War.”]


The U.S. is trying to win the release of two Americans being held in Russia, and it appears this might involve a trade for a Russian imprisoned in the U.S. That would be Viktor Bout. So who is Viktor Bout? Well, he was the world's most notorious arms smuggler, or here's how CIA Director William Burns put it concisely last week.


WILLIAM BURNS: Viktor Bout's a creep.

KELLY: A creep. For more, we're joined by NPR's Greg Myre. Hey there.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: All right, I'll put this question to you. Who is Viktor Bout, and how did he become this infamous arms dealer?

MYRE: Well, we really need to go back to the Soviet Union break up in 1991. All this military hardware was suddenly scattered across 15 brand-new countries, and it was terribly chaotic. Viktor Bout at that time was just in his mid-20s. He'd been trained as a linguist by the military. He saw real opportunity. He acquired Soviet military transport planes, loaded them with weapons and started selling them all over the world - Africa, Middle East, Asia. He sold to governments. He sold to rebel groups - anyone who would pay him. He became so notorious, there was a 2005 movie loosely based on his life called "Lord Of Death," (ph) starring Nicolas Cage. He was finally arrested in 2008 in Thailand, extradited to the U.S., convicted in 2011, and he's been serving this 25-year sentence in Illinois.

KELLY: In Illinois - now, why would Vladimir Putin, Russian President Vladimir Putin, want him back?

MYRE: Yeah, it's a bit of a head-scratcher in some ways. I mean, he made his money, Viktor Bout, by selling a lot of weapons that belonged to the Soviet military. So this is a question I put to Dan Hoffman. He's a former CIA officer who served in Russia and has long studied Vladimir Putin.

DANIEL HOFFMAN: Every opportunity he gets, Vladimir Putin wants to show that he can go toe-to-toe with Russia's main enemy. It's a real good public relations move for him to show that he's taking care of his own.

KELLY: Greg, address one of the objections that's being raised about this potential deal, which is that it is uneven to Americans who the U.S. says shouldn't even be detained in the first place in exchange for a major convicted arms smuggler. This is unusual.

MYRE: Yeah, you're right about that. I mean, there is this long history of the U.S. and Russia working out trades of sorts. But often, it's been a trade of suspected spies on both sides. So it would be unusual that this is pretty asymmetric, it seems. And the two Americans are basketball star Brittney Griner, who's pleaded guilty to having hashish oil in her luggage, and Paul Whelan, a former Marine who often traveled openly to Russia, but he was detained and convicted three years ago in a secret trial on espionage. But Dan Hoffman says, you know, there's really no alternative in cases like this.

HOFFMAN: These are dirty deals, but there's two bad options. One is letting our American citizens get sick and potentially even worse in jail, and the other one is make, essentially, a dirty deal. If it's me, I'll get my U.S. citizens out.

KELLY: The backdrop to this, of course, is the ongoing war in Ukraine. What impact might this situation have on the wider U.S.-Russia relationship?

MYRE: Well, a prisoner swap would signal that, despite all this tension, that the two countries can still do business at some level. But there's really no reason to think that the overall relations are going to change from this current trajectory, which is really from terrible to worse.

KELLY: Yeah.

MYRE: And the main issue remains Russia's war in Ukraine, where the U.S. is arming the Ukrainians, and that looks increasingly like a long-term conflict.

KELLY: NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre. Thank you, Greg.

MYRE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.