Viktor Bout in the custody of DEA agents on November 16 2010 (Image: Drug Enforcement Administration)
Viktor Bout in the custody of DEA agents on November 16 2010 (Image: Drug Enforcement Administration)

Dramatically called the Lord of War and the Merchant of Death, the convicted Russian arms smuggler Viktor Bout, now sitting out a 25-year prison sentence in a US federal prison in Illinois, has been reduced to the status of a “substantial” bargaining chip.

The US government has offered to swap Bout, who was scooped up in a dramatic sting in a luxury Bangkok hotel in 2008, for two Americans. While he didn’t name Bout directly, secretary of state Antony Blinken on Wednesday confirmed authorities had “put a substantial proposal on the table” in order to secure the freedom of basketball player Brittney Griner and businessman Paul Whelan, both imprisoned in Russia. 

Moscow has been pressing for the release of Bout since he was arrested in an elaborate Drug Enforcement Administration sting in Thailand, trapped by informers pretending to act for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) -- insurgent guerrillas who had terrorised the South American nation for decades. Bout agreed to sell the informers grenades, mortars, surface-to-air missiles and guns in a deal settled in a Bangkok hotel.