Vladimir Putin is now reviled and condemned around the world, but let the record show that Bill Browder got there pretty much before everyone else. A onetime investor in Russia (and whose grandfather Earl was president of the American Communist Party in the 1930s), Browder turned against Putin and his corrupt cronies almost 20 years ago, leading both to his being banned from the country in 2005 and in 2015 to the publication of his first book, Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice. This week marks the publication of Freezing Order: A True Story of Money Laundering, Murder, and Surviving Vladimir Putin’s Wrath, a sequel of sorts bringing readers up-to-date on how he became Putin’s enemy No. 1.
JIM KELLY: For more than a decade now, you have been decrying Vladimir Putin as a corrupt and murderous thug. Why did it take the invasion of Ukraine for the rest of the world to catch up with your assessment?
BILL BROWDER: There have been so many people in the West feeding at the Russian trough that everyone looked for ways to ignore, deflect, and minimize the evil of Putin. With the Georgian invasion, in 2008, the apologists said, “Who knows, maybe Georgia started it.” With the illegal seizure of Crimea, in 2014, they said, “It wasn’t an official invasion. They held a referendum. Besides, Crimea used to be part of Russia anyway.” With the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, in that same year, they said, “Let’s wait for the criminal investigation to be completed before drawing any rash conclusions.”
This time around, though, the U.S. and U.K. shared their intelligence two months in advance about an imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine and repeated it every night on the news. By the time Russia invaded, there was no alternative narrative, and the apologists and appeasers had to face up to the fact that this was a naked, unprovoked act of aggression.
J.K.: As a British businessman in Moscow, you discovered Putin’s avarice firsthand when your companies were looted to the tune of more than $200 million. Do you have an idea of where it went?
B.B.: I’ve spent the last 12 years tracing the money. Most of it ended up in the West in luxury properties, yachts, jewelry, private-jet charters, and bank accounts. Not surprisingly, many Russian-government officials were the recipients and, amazingly, Vladimir Putin was one of them.
J.K.: What happened next still shocks me. Sergei Magnitsky, your Russian tax lawyer and the man who uncovered the fraud, was jailed, tortured, and then beaten to death, though Russian authorities insisted that he had died of natural causes. You fought hard to bring about the Magnitsky Act, which allows for the seizure of overseas assets held by Russians accused of corruption or human-rights abuses. Many countries have since adopted similar measures to impose sanctions on the oligarchs, which is why someone like Roman Abramovich sold his stake in the Chelsea Football Club lest it be seized by authorities. In your opinion, who is the most odious of the oligarchs?
B.B.: The way I look at it, nearly every oligarch is odious. The oligarchs are people who basically sold their soul to Putin in exchange for being able to steal vast amounts of money from the state. The Russian government is a criminal enterprise and Putin is the mafia boss. When the oligarchs are asked to commit crimes on behalf of Putin, they always agree. With a very small number of exceptions, the oligarchs should all be treated with contempt.
J.K.: At one point in his presidency, Donald Trump mused aloud that he might consider swapping you for Russian-intelligence agents. Aside from the fact that you are a British citizen and thus not subject to Trump’s whimsical notions, how did you react to this startling offer?
B.B.: Even though I’m a British citizen, I was in the United States at the time that Putin asked Trump to hand me over (and when Trump agreed). It was terrifying. I pictured a bunch of black S.U.V.’s from the government showing up and being bundled into the back, driven to some government airfield, and flown out on a C.I.A. rendition flight to Moscow. It was only after four days and a Senate vote of 98–0 not to hand me over that I felt safe to stay in America.
J.K.: Do not take this the wrong way, but how have you gotten this far without having your tea poisoned or your ankle pierced with a polonium-laced umbrella tip?
B.B.: I think I’ve survived for the last decade because until recently Putin has always kept one foot in the civilized world and one foot in the criminal world. At the same time as he was planning assassination plots against his enemies, he was also attending the G20 meetings, having summits with various heads of state, and hosting major sports events. In those times, he probably understood that killing the most high-profile foreign critic on foreign soil would have spoiled his ability to carry on with the West in the same way. Unfortunately, with the invasion of Ukraine, he’s put both feet into the criminal world, and all bets for me and other enemies of Putin are off.
J.K.: You have estimated that Putin himself may be worth more than $200 billion. And yet there are only so many yachts with gold toilet-roll holders you can buy. What could he possibly do with this money?
B.B.: The main reason he has stolen so much money is not because he wants to spend it, but he needs it to project power. In Russia you can’t be the most powerful man unless you’re the richest.
J.K.: The West is employing an ever larger array of sanctions against Russia as we learn more about the atrocities committed by Russian troops. Is there one card the West has not played yet that you think will be most effective?
B.B.: The sanctions program that has been rolled out by Western countries has been truly impressive. Going after the central-bank reserves, the oligarchs, and Russian banks’ connection to SWIFT are the most overwhelming economic actions ever imposed against a country in history. But, unfortunately, there’s one huge elephant in the room, and that is the export of Russian oil and gas. While we are all sanctioning Russia, the E.U. is sending Putin billions of dollars in the form of payments for oil and gas. If we truly want to stop Putin, we need to stop buying Russian oil and gas.
J.K.: I am not going to put you on the spot and ask you how this will all end for Putin, but I will ask you this: Do you think you will ever be able to visit Russia again once Putin is gone?
B.B.: If Putin is gone and there is a democratic government in Russia that adheres to rule of law and respects human rights, I would love to return to Moscow one day. Perhaps to unveil a statue of Sergei Magnitsky in central Moscow.
Freezing Order, by Bill Browder, is out now from Simon & Schuster
Jim Kelly is the Books Editor for AIR MAIL