In September, I spoke with Steve Zissou, a Queens lawyer who represents Viktor Bout, the Russian arms dealer exchanged for WNBA star Brittney Griner on Thursday. Zissou is an impassioned advocate for Bout, who he believes has gotten a bad rap in large part because of his infamous nickname, “the merchant of death.”
When we first talked, Zissou was convinced a prisoner swap would happen. He also correctly predicted it would come after the midterms and that Paul Whelan, another American held in the Russian prison system, would not be included if the only outgoing prisoner was Bout. On Friday morning, I spoke with Zissou again to get his reaction to a deal that thrilled many Americans but that has also drawn its share of critics.
Since we spoke in September, did you have more indication this swap would occur?
The kicker was when the Russian ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, went to visit Viktor in Marion last month and Viktor came away reassured. It’s an unusual thing to have your client who has been sitting in jail for 15 years and is in the Guantanamo of the north, and he’s reassuring me while I’m sitting somewhere drinking martinis. The reality is we knew at some point that reasonable people prevail. The swap of Viktor for Brittney was a fair one. Let’s remember, Viktor has been in prison longer than the combined prison times of Paul Whelan, Trevor Reed, Griner, and Marc Fogel. You want to get Brittney back, swap her for Bout. It’s long past time. They could have had it the week after Griner was arrested.
So it sounds like the breakthrough was the Americans accepting they weren’t also getting Whelan back.
In the end, it became President Biden’s willingness to take the only deal he could to free Brittney Griner. You’re not getting Griner and Whelan for Viktor Bout. Whelan was convicted in Russia and is regarded as being involved in espionage. These are not unreasonable positions to take unless you start with the premise that all Americans are hostages and all Russians are bad. “He’s the merchant of death! That’s the name we gave him! We can’t trade him for our poor American hostages.” That’s nonsense. That’s an American-centric point of view.
Do you think Whelan will still come home in another prisoner exchange?
Absolutely, I do.
When did you hear this deal was actually happening?
Both the State Department and the Russian foreign ministry held very tightly to this and there really was no confirmation until late Wednesday night. That’s understandable because until the citizens are on their way, anything can happen.
Have you spoken to Bout?
I spoke to him this morning. He’s back, he’s home, he’s with his family, he’s resting comfortably. He’s doing well and trying to figure out what to do with his life. That’s really the common thing for folks who have been in jail for a long time. Now what do we do?
Did he share any thoughts on the whole process?
Look, it was private, and I’m not gonna go into any more of it. What Viktor has said to me recently is between him and I. But Viktor’s home. He’s emailing me, “Hey, when are you coming to Moscow?’
Are you gonna go?
I got COVID. I’ve been testing positive for two weeks. But I’ll go eventually.
Has he ever expressed any thoughts on Brittney Griner’s situation?
The Bout family has long hoped for the release of Trevor Reed and Brittney Griner. They have not made a secret of that. Whelan is a different issue because nobody really knows the facts of his case since it’s an espionage case, like one of our FISA cases.
What will Bout’s life be like now? Is he, for lack of a better word, a celebrity in Russia?
He already was. Russian media followed his plane from tarmac to landing in Moscow. The Russian people have long wanted his return. He’s viewed as an example of American arrogance and American hypocrisy in foreign affairs and in worldwide law enforcement. He’s regarded as a hero of the motherland, as someone who refused to put his own liberty ahead of his country.
What do you make of the American media’s response to Bout’s release?
I continue to correct the narrative. There’s a monsoon of pieces and they’re all about the “merchant of death.” I was up at 4 a.m. correcting folks. I spent three hours emailing reporters. Viktor’s got a life ahead of him, and you really want to correct the record. And I know that, for Viktor, it’s very difficult to be tarnished with this broad brush.
What do you think Bout will do now?
You know, Viktor is a deep thinker. He’s deeply into history and antiquity and he loves art. He’s not gonna make any rash decisions. He’s not gonna wake up on his first morning of freedom in Moscow and decide what to do. I think in the long run he’s gonna prefer a quiet existence where he can hopefully one day have grandchildren. His daughter just got married. We missed him being able to get to the wedding by just a few weeks, actually. So I think he’s going to reconnect with his family. And he’s got to make a living. It’s certainly not going to be something that will get him attention from the policemen of the world. He’s not going to be returning to the transportation business.
When you heard Bout’s plane had landed, what was that moment like for you?
I was really waiting for that. I got a call from one of my contacts who was with him at the airport who let me know they were safely on the ground. It was joy. And that’s when the first bottle of vodka got opened.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.