Viktor Bout has received a celebrity’s welcome in Russia since being released from U.S. custody, embarking on something of a victory tour in the wake of a prisoner swap that not only secured his freedom, but also offered a rare win for President Vladimir Putin.
The diplomatic breakthrough between Washington and Moscow resulted in Bout — a notorious arms dealer known as the “merchant of death” — being exchanged for WNBA star Brittney Griner last week.
He has since given high-profile interviews to state media and on Monday appeared on stage at a political event as he joined an ultranationalist party. Analysts said that while he is not a household name with the public, securing his return holds symbolic value to the Russian leader and his allies.
“It’s proof that Russia doesn’t abandon its people,” Tatiana Stanovaya, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the founder and head of the political analysis firm R.Politik, told NBC News.
“He has a lot of doors which are open in front of him,” she said, adding that Putin considers Bout “someone who served the motherland.”
Stanovaya added: “For Putin, personally, he’s a hero. So he must be welcomed in Russia as a hero and he must have all the opportunities to settle his life the way he would like to.”
Bout, a former Soviet military officer who became rich as an arms dealer, has always maintained his innocence.
He gained fame supposedly by supplying weapons for civil wars in South America, the Middle East and Africa. His clients were said to include Liberia’s Charles Taylor, longtime Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and both sides in Angola’s civil war, according to The Associated Press.
Russian representatives greeted Bout with a hug at Abu Dhabi’s airport Thursday and the arms dealer was later shown on state media talking to his family from a private jet. Russian media also showed him walking off a plane in Moscow, where relatives waiting with flowers embraced him.
Since his return home, Bout has given a pair of interviews to Maria Butina on the state-run TV channel RT. Butina, who used her activism with the National Rifle Association to illegally infiltrate U.S. conservative political circles, was arrested in 2018 but released and deported a year later to her own hero’s welcome at home.
The two bonded over many things, including their time in American prisons, speaking about the kind of inmates they met and their support for Putin’s “special military operation” in Ukraine.
“If I had the opportunity and the necessary skills, I would, of course, volunteer,” Bout told Butina in his second interview, which aired Saturday.
When asked if he hung a portrait of Putin in his prison cell, he replied, “Yes, always. Why not? I am proud that I am Russian and that our president is Putin.”
Like Butina, who was elected to the State Duma last year, Bout spared no time kicking off a potential political career.
On Monday, he joined the right-wing populist and pro-Kremlin Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, founded by the ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky.
“I am sure that Viktor Bout — a strong-minded and courageous man — will take a worthy place in it. Welcome to our ranks!” current party chair Leonid Slutsky was quoted by the state news agency Tass as saying while on stage beside Bout, who was wearing a suit and sporting his trademark mustache.
Tass later quoted Bout as saying that he has not yet decided to run in any elections.
“Putin will reassure him that if he would like to continue serving the state, the motherland, he will have all the other opportunities for that,” Stanovaya said.
Bout was sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2012 and convicted of selling arms to Colombian rebels prosecutors said were intended to kill Americans. He maintained his innocence, with the Russian government demanding his release ever since.
The long-rumored exchange has fueled debate over whether the Biden administration should have given in to the Russian demands given the disparity between the two cases and the status of Paul Whelan, a corporate executive imprisoned in Russia since 2018 on espionage charges the U.S. and his family have said are baseless.
Former President Donald Trump said Sunday that he had turned down a one-for-swap of Whelan and Bout while in office, prior to Griner’s detention.
“I wouldn’t have made the deal for a hundred people in exchange for someone that has killed untold numbers of people with his arms deals,” Trump wrote on his social media platform Truth Social.
But the swap may not just be a timely win for the Kremlin at home, Stanovaya said, adding that it also shows that productive talks with Russia are possible even as war rages in Ukraine.
“It’s proof that Americans can be pragmatic sometimes and is an investment in future productive rational relations,” she said.
Associated Press contributed.