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A convicted arms dealer returns to Russia in Griner prisoner swap

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

WNBA star Brittney Griner is on her way back to her family after being released from a Russian prison.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: She's safe. She's on a plane. She's on her way home, after months of being unjustly detained in Russia, held under intolerable circumstances.

MARTIN: That's President Biden announcing Griner's release from the White House this morning. In a background call with reporters, White House officials said Griner is in good health. And she was met in the UAE by U.S. Special Envoy for Hostages Roger Carstens. Griner was arrested in Russia back in February on drugs charges. She was freed in a prisoner exchange, with the U.S. government handing over convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. So who is this man? I asked Lee Wolosky, most recently special counsel to President Biden and a former White House counterterrorism official who helped shut down Bout's gunrunning business.

LEE WOLOSKY: Viktor Bout first came to the attention of the United States in the late 1990s, when President Clinton was working to resolve various conflicts in Africa. And we noticed in these countries that there was one person who was supplying arms not just to one side of the conflict but, in some cases, to both sides of the conflict. And I'm talking about countries like Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sierra Leone and Angola that were in the midst of some form of civil wars. And because of the president's interest in trying to resolve those conflicts, we took a very close look at Viktor Bout, soon learned that he ran a aviation logistics empire with the capacity to move not just guns but, really, much of anything to anyone who would pay him enough money to move those items of guns, ammunition, in some cases helicopter gunships and things of that sort into conflict zones.

MARTIN: Was Viktor Bout working at the behest of the Russian government, or is he just an independent contractor?

WOLOSKY: Certainly, a lot of the capabilities that he brought to bear were capabilities that would be hard to obtain without very deep contacts with the Russian government. He used Russian aircraft that had been previously Russian military aircraft, for instance. And, I mean, not just planes but huge cargo planes and things of that sort that moved massive amounts of weaponry and other military equipment around the world. So I can't say that he was working for the Russian government, but I can say with a high degree of confidence that he certainly had deep relationships with the Russian government.

MARTIN: How did you track him down? How was he finally arrested?

WOLOSKY: Well, he was finally arrested long after I left government in a sting operation that drew him to Thailand, where he was arrested by U.S. authorities for wanting to provide weapons to the FARC in Colombia. But at the time that I was involved, we worked with numerous countries to essentially ground him, which we did. We forced him back to Russia and, essentially, put him out of business. And then the sting operation occurred a few years later to pull him out of Russia and into a place where the United States could arrest him. He was then transferred to U.S. custody, tried and convicted in federal court in Manhattan and has been in prison for a number of years and is now actually nearing the end of his sentence.

MARTIN: Huh. He was nearing the end of his sentence, yet it was clearly very important for Vladimir Putin and the Russian government to get him back. Why?

WOLOSKY: All the available evidence points to a deep relationship with the Russian government. And any government wants to get its people back, particularly if they have worked for that government. That's what the Russians have now been able to achieve. It's why they put him on the table. They put him on the table in prior instances when they've wanted to get something out of the United States, and they did that again here for Brittney Griner.

MARTIN: So Viktor Bout is an older man now. He is free. He is presumably, if not already in Russia, on his way back. What does he do now? Does he go back in business?

WOLOSKY: I think it's going to be hard for him to reconstruct the empire that he once had, which involved scores and scores of aircraft and personnel in many different countries. So I don't think that it's likely that he's going to go back at least to that business.

MARTIN: As someone who has looked at broader national security issues, what do you make of the fact that, at this point, it appears the American Paul Whelan has not been released?

WOLOSKY: I certainly hope that Paul Whelan comes home. He's wrongfully detained, as was Brittney Griner. And I should add that Viktor Bout was not wrongfully detained. Viktor Bout is a criminal. But I think it's a little hard based on the information that we now have available to us to know the full scope of the deal that has led to the Bout and Griner exchange.

MARTIN: Lee Wolosky, a former White House counterterrorism official. We appreciate your time and context this morning. Thank you.

WOLOSKY: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.