Russia hints at linking Griner’s case to Viktor Bout, a Russian known as the ‘Merchant of Death.’

Source: www.nytimes.com : 2022-07-01 13:38:31 : Michael Crowley

WASHINGTON — She is an American professional basketball star, accused of carrying hashish oil in her luggage.

He is a notorious Russian arms dealer known as the “Merchant of Death,” serving a 25-year federal prison sentence for conspiring to sell weapons to people who said they planned to kill Americans.

And the Kremlin appears interested in linking their fates, in a potential deal with the Biden administration that would free both as Russia presses on with its war in Ukraine.

The vast disparity between the cases of Brittney Griner and Viktor Bout highlights the extreme difficulty President Biden would face if he sought a prisoner exchange to free Ms. Griner, the detained W.N.B.A. player, from detention in Moscow. The Biden administration, reluctant to create an incentive for the arrest or abduction of Americans abroad, would be hard-pressed to justify the release of a villainous figure like Mr. Bout.

At the same time, Mr. Biden is under pressure to free Ms. Griner, who was arrested at a Moscow-area airport in February and whom the State Department classified in May as “wrongfully detained.” That reflects concern that the Kremlin considers her leverage in the tense confrontation between the United States and Russia over Ukraine. Last week, dozens of groups representing people of color, women and L.G.B.T.Q. Americans sent a letter urging Mr. Biden to “make a deal to get Brittney back home to America immediately and safely.”

The price for any deal could be Mr. Bout, 55, a former Soviet military officer who made a fortune in global arms trafficking before he was caught in a federal sting operation and convicted of conspiring to sell weapons to people who said they planned to kill Americans.

Russian officials have pressed Mr. Bout’s case for years, and in recent weeks Russian media outlets have directly linked his case to Ms. Griner’s. Some, including the state-owned Tass news service, have even claimed that talks with Washington for a possible exchange are already underway, something that U.S. officials will not confirm.

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