Freeing the convicted Russian “is a deeply disturbing decision,” added Sen. Bob Menendez.
Some Pentagon officials are concerned that convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who was released on Thursday in a prisoner swap for American basketball star Brittney Griner, could return to illegally trafficking weapons, potentially fueling conflicts across the world.
While officials in the Pentagon applauded Griner’s release, some are worried about the impact of Bout’s return, particularly in Africa. Bout, nicknamed the “Merchant of Death,” was serving a 25-year prison sentence in the United States on charges of conspiring to kill Americans, delivery of anti-aircraft missiles, and aiding a terrorist organization.
“I think there is a concern that [he] would return to doing the same kind of work that he’s done in the past,” said one senior Defense Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive topic.
With Bout back in Russia, National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby stressed that “our national security interest is not going to change.”
“We’re going to make sure that we can defend this country against any and all threats,” Kirby said on CNN on Thursday. “And so, with Mr. Bout being back on the street, we’re going to stay focused on making sure we can defend this country.”
Sen. Bob Menendez, the Democratic chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said there’s no equivalence between Griner and Bout.
“We cannot ignore that releasing Bout back into the world is a deeply disturbing decision,” he said in a statement Thursday. “We must stop inviting dictatorial and rogue regimes to use Americans overseas as bargaining chips, and we must try do better at encouraging American citizens against traveling to places like Russia where they are primary targets for this type of unlawful detention.”
Bout, a former Soviet military officer, launched a cargo airline, Air Cess, with a small fleet of Russian planes in 1995. Bout’s airline supplied weapons to conflicts across the African continent and Afghanistan, sometimes to both sides, fueling civil wars across the world.
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