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Russian state media lauds Putin's 'win' on Bout exchange

By Guy Faulconbridge

MOSCOW, Dec 9 (Reuters) - Russian state media on Friday lauded President Vladimir Putin for "winning" a prisoner exchange with the United States by swapping a U.S. basketball player for one of the world's most prolific arms dealers known as the merchant of death.

Bout arrived in Moscow late on Thursday after Russia and the United States swapped the arms dealer for U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner at Abu Dhabi airport.

Described by the U.S. Department of Justice as one of the world's most prolific arms dealers who had sold weapons across the globe to terrorists and America's enemies for decades, Bout always denied the charges.

He was detained in an elaborate sting operation by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in a luxury hotel in Bangkok. Moscow always maintained he was innocent but he was sentenced to 25 years in jail by a Manhattan court in 2012.

"It is a capitulation by America," Maria Butina, a lawmaker in the lower house of the Russian parliament told state television on the tarmac of Moscow's Vnukovo airport just as Bout landed.

"It shows that Russia doesn't abandon its own while America has shown its defeat," Butina said beside Bout's wife and mother, who hugged him as he stepped back onto Russian soil. "Russia did not forget him."

Bout's life reads like a spy thriller and his notoriety was such that his life helped inspire a 2005 Hollywood film "Lord of War", starring Nicolas Cage as Yuri Orlov, an arms dealer loosely based on Bout.

Little is known publicly about his early life, though he has been linked to Russian military intelligence (GRU), which has always made much of its reputation for never forgiving traitors and never abandoning its people no matter what the cost.

Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for Russia's foreign ministry, posted a montage under the title "And so 14 years!" in reference to the 14 years of Bout's detention.

The montage showed historical video of Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Zakharova and other senior diplomats saying "Viktor Bout".

"Washington categorically refused to engage in dialogue on the inclusion of the Russian in the exchange scheme," the foreign ministry said. "Nevertheless, the Russian Federation continued to actively work to rescue our compatriot."

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the Wagner Group of mercenaries, welcomed Bout's return.

"Congratulations to Viktor Bout. And I am very happy for him," said Prigozhin, a close ally of Putin.

Some Republicans in the United States criticized the Biden administration for making the swap.

"What a 'stupid' and unpatriotic embarrassment for the USA!!!" former President Donald Trump wrote on social media.

Trump questioned why Griner was swapped for one of the world's biggest arms dealers, and why the exchange did not include Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine serving a 16-year sentence in a Russian penal colony on espionage charges.

Whelan, who holds American, British, Canadian and Irish passports, was sentenced in 2020 to 16 years in jail after being convicted of spying. Russia said he was caught with classified information in a Moscow hotel room where agents from the Federal Security Service detained him on Dec. 28, 2018. He denies that he committed espionage.

Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of state-funded RT, said the exchange showed that Russia "will win" in the end because Washington had chosen to leave a convicted U.S. spy in jail in Russia. (Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge, Editing by William Maclean)