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Senior Russian official scuttles idea of a Bout-Whelan trade

A new report this week from a Russian news agency, citing a senior Russian diplomat, appears to throw cold water on the possibility of a long-rumored trade that would have sent imprisoned international arms merchant Viktor Bout back to his homeland and freed jailed espionage suspect Paul Whelan to return to the U.S.

Citing the Moscow-based RIA Novosti news agency, Radio Free Europe on Friday quoted Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov as saying there was no momentum toward any prisoner exchange sending Bout and Whelan to their home countries.

“Such discussions are not being conducted, and we do not intend to conduct them,” Ryabkov told the Russian news agency.

Last year, Whelan’s lawyer raised hopes for a spy swap during Whelan’s trial and conviction in Moscow, and Russian officials urged Bout’s release because of fears that he and other Russian prisoners in the U.S. might be infected during the Covid-19 pandemic. Whelan’s lawyer, Vladimir Zherebenkov, told Reuters last June that Russian officials hoped they could swing a trade for Bout and Konstantin Yaroshenko, another Russian imprisoned on narcotics charges.

Bout’s wife, Alla, also called publicly for a swap, but if there was any glimmer of interest for that move during the waning days of the Trump administration, the latest official Russian statement would seem to have laid that to rest.

Unlike Trump, who openly courted Russian President Vladimir Putin, President Joseph Biden Jr. has cooled diplomacy with the Russian leader in advance of a proposed summit between Biden and Putin in Geneva next month. And with new reports this week that a Russian hacking team again penetrated a U.S. foreign aid agency, any diplomatic thaw would seem even more unlikely.

Bout is serving a 25 year prison sentence in a medium-security federal prison in Marion, Ill. for his 2011 conviction for conspiring to target U.S. officials with lethal weapons during a U.S. government sting operation featuring informants posing as South American narco-terrorists. His 2008 arrest in Bangkok by U.S. narcotics agents and Thai police followed more than a decade of his exploits in Africa, Asia and the Mideast and a determined international manhunt to apprehend him, a saga chronicled in the book, “Merchant of Death.”