Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, the infamous “Merchant of Death” exchanged for basketball player Brittney Griner in a controversial prisoner swap by the Biden administration two weeks ago, visited the Russian-occupied Ukrainian city of Luhansk on Saturday to attend a political event.
According to Russian state media, Bout was in Luhansk for the ceremonial opening of a branch office of the fervently nationalist and pro-Kremlin Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR).
Bout is a strong supporter of the Ukrainian invasion who told Russian state media last week that he thought Vladimir Putin should have invaded long ago. He said he would like to assist the invasion in any way possible and even claimed he would enlist for combat duty if he was younger, although at 55 he is younger than some of Putin’s recent recruits.
Bout returned to a hero’s welcome in Russia after the Biden administration exchanged him for Griner, with the lopsided trade touted as evidence of Putin’s geopolitical strength. Bout was serving a 25-year prison sentence in the U.S. on charges of conspiracy to murder American citizens, illegally exporting anti-aircraft missiles, and giving material support to a terrorist organization, namely Colombia’s Marxist-Leninist FARC insurgency. Griner was serving nine years in Russia for carrying vape cartridges containing cannabis oil.
Soon after his release, Bout formally joined the LDPR and was touted as leadership material by its chairman, Leonid Slutsky.
On Saturday, Bout said he thought Luhansk “would soon be peaceful” under Russian domination and its people would “live without fear for their future.” The city is the centerpiece of an ersatz “Luhansk People’s Republic” unilaterally established by Moscow in 2014, with an eye toward annexing the region, a step Russia took in September 2022.
“All these eight long years, I have closely followed what is happening in the Donbas. And you know, your example played a lot for me, helped me, because you are all heroes. Your will, determination, and the fact that you not only survived but also won and returned to Russia – this is very important,” Bout said at the dedication of the LDPR branch in Luhansk. Donbas is the region of eastern Ukraine contested by Russia-backed separatists.
“You inspired me, which allowed me to return to my homeland, like the entire Donbas to Russia,” Bout told the gathered LDPR members, comparing his release from prison to Russia’s annexation of the region.
Slutsky, who traveled to Luhansk with Bout, claimed they had to change their travel plans several times to avoid hostile “high-precision weapons” in the vicinity.
“But this could not cancel our visit to Luhansk, because this is a point of no return. Donbas and Russia are together forever. We will come here under any conditions,” Slutsky told Russian state media.