While Bout talks, former officials say Trump had no interest in his trade

Freed after more than a decade in an Illinois federal prison, Viktor Bout told sympathetic Russian interviewers that the U.S. was “trying to destroy us again.” Meanwhile, several former U.S. officials said earlier Russian attempts to trade for Bout’s freedom were rejected because former President Donald Trump wasn’t interested.

Bout, freed late last week in a prisoner exchange for WNBA basketball star Brittney Griner, talked in a round of interviews with Russian state media personalities, chastising the U.S. and praising Russian President Vladimir Putin for repatriating imprisoned Russians like him.

“They exchanged me and that’s that. I don’t think that I am important to Russian politics. We just don’t leave our people behind,” Bout said in a chat on Russian state media RT with Maria Butina, who endured her own stint as a U.S. inmate after she was convicted as an unregistered foreign agent for Russia.

Bout also aligned himself with Putin’s anti-U.S. tirades and his invasion of Ukraine, saying: “The West thinks that they didn’t finish us off in 1990, when the Soviet Union started to collapse. They think they can destroy us again and divide Russia into many parts.”

Bout said nothing about what the future holds for him. At 55, he is far from retirement, but has been out of the arms transport game since 2008, when he was nabbed by U.S. narcotics agents and Thai police in Bangkok after a sting operation. Convicted by a federal jury in New York in 2011 on four counts, including conspiracy to kill Americans, Bout was sentenced in 2011 to 25 years in a U.S. prison.

In earlier interview with RT from prison in 2019, Bout alleged that U.S. officials had tried to pressure him to divulge information about Russian intelligence operations, but he claimed he didn’t crack.

“I denied to cooperate with their side,” he said at the time. “The State Department a few years ago openly admitted: ‘Yeah, we’re gonna keep him as an example, as a whipping boy so other Russians are more polite and cooperative with us when we go after their corrupt regime.’” He added: “They approached and said: we are going to get all your family the green card and settle you there if you tell us some dirt about Putin and how corrupt his regime is and so on. And I said you’ve come to the wrong person.”

It remains unclear whether Putin might enlist Bout in his military’s efforts to replenish its inventory of rockets, drones, artillery and other weaponry from arms caches held in Iran, North Korea and other nations. But Bout’s planes were allegedly sighted in Tehran in the early 2000s, suggesting that he might have contacts in that country’s government.

It’s also uncertain whether a resurgent Bout would be welcomed by others in Putin’s inner circle, particularly Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Putin intimate known as “the Chef,” who heads the mercenary Wagner Group that has been active in Ukraine and Syria, and also in Africa, which was once Bout’s main theater of weapons delivery operations.

Meanwhile, several former Trump administration officials reported that Russian officials tried to press for a deal for Bout’s return but that Trump was dismissive of any deal. Trump could have traded Bout for still-imprisoned American Paul Whelan but had no interest, said former Trump national security adviser John Bolton.

Fiona Hill, the top Russia specialist at the NSC early in the Trump administration, confirmed to CBS’s Face the Nation that there were multiple efforts by Russia to secure Bout’s release for Whelan’s.

“President Trump wasn’t especially interested in engaging in that swap,” she said, adding: “He was not particularly interested in Paul’s case in the way that one would have thought he would be.”