President Joe Biden and others who appear to think it’s appropriate to explore the possibility of releasing a Russian arm dealer Viktor Bout from prison in exchange for any U.S. citizen detained by Russia – be it Brittney Griner, Paul Whelan, or someone else – “are delusional and naive,” said Rob Zachariasiewicz in his op-ed for USA Today on July 17th.
Rob “Zach” Zachariasiewicz who made the statement was one of the Drug Enforcement agents behind the successful operation that ended in Bout’s arrest in 2008.
Bout, known as the “Merchant of Death” who fueled conflicts around the world, was a key player in numerous global illicit arm deals. According to official data, an enormous amount of resources and political capital was expended on the critical national security investigation into Bout’s actions prior to his arrest.
Most of the articles and interviews that advocate for the release of Bout in exchange for Griner speculate that Bout, arrested in 2008, will soon be released as he no longer poses a threat because it is unlikely that he continues his force in the global illicit arms trade.
Bout who was arrested in Thailand in 2008 has served less than 15 years, or 60 percent, of his mandatory 25-year sentence. The evidence against Bout was extensive and overwhelming.
The potential re-engagement of Bout in arms trade is not the primary national security implication to consider, according to Zachariasiewicz. Instead, in his opinion it’d be a negative message to all criminals if such an exchange occur.
“Negotiating for Bout’s release is a feckless and shortsighted foreign policy,” Zachariasiewicz wrote. “Negotiating the release of Bout would erode the rule of law. The Drug Enforcement Administration does not engage in politically motivated investigations. The case on Bout was made solely on the basis of his criminal actions. If we cave to political deal-making, we reduce the righteousness of our legal system and, in effect, belittle our rule of law to the political stunts of Putin and his kangaroo courts,” he continues.
“We also must find ways to discourage our citizens from needlessly placing themselves in harm’s way – whether missionaries looking to spread goodwill, adventure seekers chasing a unique experience or the vulnerable succumbing to criminal scams. I speak from experience, as I dedicated nearly three years to seeking the successful release of an innocent American citizen jailed overseas,” said Zachariasiewicz.
Some have asked whether exchanging Bout for one of the Americans held in Russia would be a “fair” trade. Zachariasiewicz rejects such calculations. “There is no value to be placed on a human life. Nobody can judge the value of one person against another. My arguments are based on the logic of national security and sound decision-making – and, again, I pray for the safe return of those held and wish peace to their families”, he says.
“Griner, Whelan and Trevor Reed each decided to travel to Russia for profit and/or personal pleasure. Russia has been a hostile state since long before the invasion of Ukraine,” Zachariasiewicz concludes.

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