The Biden administration wanted the Russians to release WNBA star Brittney Griner so badly that it agreed to hand over Viktor Bout — an incarcerated arms dealer notorious enough that he was known as the “Merchant of Death” and who was finally caught back in 2008, after trying to sell weapons with the aim of shooting down US passenger jets. Backed by Putin, the life of the dealer who even sold arms at one point to Al-Qaeda was also part of the basis of the 2005 Nicholas Cage movie Lord of War (available on HBO Max).
For whatever reason, this is the guy the White House on Thursday formally handed over in a controversial, high-level swap for Griner — a US athlete jailed in Russia since February on drug charges.
Lord of War on HBO Max
The exchanged detainees, it should go without saying, could not have been jailed for more different crimes. Griner was arrested after she was found to be in possession of a gram of cannabis oil. Bout is regarded as the most prolific and dangerous global arms dealer in decades — a man who armed the Taliban and who was convicted in US court of scheming to kill Americans.
One of the things that makes the Lord of War aspect of this whole lamentable affair so extraordinary is the movie’s ending. If you’ve seen it, I’m referring to the monologue by Yuri Orlov (Cage) in which he explains in a near-whisper, with almost weary certainty, why “in the end, I will be released.” In short: Today, events played out exactly as Cage’s Viktor-like character said they would in Lord of War:
“The reason I’ll be released is the same reason you think I’ll be convicted. I do rub shoulders with some of the most vile, sadistic men calling themselves leaders today. Some of those men are the enemies of your enemies … You call me evil. But unfortunately, for you, I’m a necessary evil.”
‘An intelligent examination of the gun trade’
Orlov, the fictional arms dealer at the center of Lord of War, is the son of a family of Ukrainian refugees. The Rotten Tomatoes critics’ consensus has described the movie as “an intelligent examination of the gun trade.” And in addition to the ending cited above, there’s also a terse assertion at the end about how the biggest arms producers in the world also happen to be members of the UN Security Council.
WNBA basketball player Brittney Griner, who was detained at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport and later charged with illegal possession of cannabis. Image source: EVGENIA NOVOZHENINA / POOL / AFP) (Photo by EVGENIA NOVOZHENINA/POOL/AFP via Getty Images
The fact that Biden officials agreed to trade the “Lord of War” himself for Griner, meanwhile, is just one of the reasons the swap is so controversial.
At one point, for example, not long after Griner had been imprisoned, her supporters bitterly lamented that if it was Lebron James in a Russian jail instead of Griner, the US would have already secured his release. Now, though, the fate of other US nationals still detained in Russia — like Marc Fogel, who was arrested for possessing medical marijuana that he had a prescription for — stands in contrast to that of Griner, who had celebrity status on her side.