The financier who calls himself Putin’s ‘number one enemy’
Bill Browder, whose fund was once Russia’s biggest foreign investor, calls himself Vladimir Putin’s “number one enemy”. But despite the Russian president’s list of critics substantially growing, he does not feel any safer.
In fact, Browder’s tactics for staying safe from Russian gangsters – such as moving around regularly and never eating in the same restaurant twice – have had to be upgraded as the war unfolds in Ukraine.
Bill Browder was instrumental in the establishment of the US Magnitsky Act.Credit:Bloomberg
“I’ve increased my own security since the invasion. For obvious reasons I can’t go into details, but they have become more rigorous based on the increased risk,” admits the businessman and activist, who has been urging the West to confront Putin for years, and was recently photographed outside Downing Street.
“In the past, Putin always kept one foot in the civilised world and one foot in the criminal world. He liked to attend the G20 and the International Olympic Committee on one hand, and then organise the assassination of his enemies on the other. It was his foot in the civilised world that probably kept me alive,” he explains.
“Now that he’s put both feet in the criminal world, and there are already huge sanctions against him, his incentive not to kill me has diminished dramatically. I definitely have to be more careful now.”
But the 57-year-old refuses to live in fear, living by the motto that the moment you start doing so is the moment your opponents have won.
He has previously explained how his attitude to life changed dramatically after transitioning from a “regular person”, to staring “down the abyss” in November 2009 when his lawyer Sergei Magnitsky was tortured and killed in a Moscow prison. The 37-year-old father of two was arrested after uncovering a web of corruption allegedly involving senior Russian officials – a scam that was exposed after Browder’s investment firm Hermitage Capital Management hired Magnitsky in 2007 to investigate a $US230 million ($315 million) tax theft.
Browder has been on a mission to secure justice for Magnitsky’s family ever since. In 2012 the Magnitsky Act was passed in the US to punish those who could have been involved in his death. The following year, 18 Russians were subject to visa bans and asset freezes in America.
Today, Browder has been working 100-hour weeks campaigning for effective sanctions against oligarchs through the Magnitsky Act and its offshoots. “We’re in an existential crisis where Putin has torn up the post-World War Two rulebook and is now terrorising millions of innocent people. We have to do anything and everything we can to cut off the supply of money to this regime,” he argues, days after warning investors that buying cheap Russian stocks was like buying German equities during the Holocaust.
Browder praised the UK’s sanctioning of Roman Abramovich last week but said Western nations need to keep freezing the assets of Russia’s oligarchs.Credit:AP
“Many investors are oblivious to the risks of going into countries without a rule of law. In authoritarian regimes, if you get ripped off, you have no recourse. There are no independent courts, regulators or media to help you. You’re totally at the mercy of corrupt individuals.”
The financier has no time for countries pushing back on certain sanctions, saying only a “total economic embargo” which cuts off Putin’s cash flow is the key to stopping him. Germany was last week accused of resisting efforts to lock Sberbank out of Swift, the payments system that underpinned most international transactions, as calls for tougher sanctions against Putin intensified.
Russia’s largest lender was left off the initial list of selected Russian banks already removed from Swift by Western nations, as part of a decision to protect energy-related transactions. Germany has urged caution for months, initially fearing that Russia’s ejection from Swift could leave Berlin unable to pay for its gas purchases from Moscow.
“Germany has been pushing its own economic agenda with Russia for two decades, which is what got us into this mess. If the German government had been a little less narrow-minded about short-term profits, we may have been able to stop Putin two invasions ago,” Browder says.
In contrast, he is unusually impressed with Westminster and praises the sanctioning of Roman Abramovich last week – a step that freezes the Russian-Israeli billionaire’s planned sale of Chelsea football club. “It’s a bold move by the British Government and finally lives up to the tough rhetoric. There are very few times I’m impressed with the Government but this time I am.”
Fears that sanctions could stoke anti-Russian sentiment have been a talking point between Browder and his Russian wife in recent weeks.
“We’re in an existential crisis where Putin has torn up the post-World War Two rulebook and is now terrorising millions of innocent people. We have to do anything and everything we can to cut off the supply of money to this regime,”
“I don’t believe the Russian people want this war any more than we do. Sadly, they’ve become hostage to Putin’s murderous plans and have to bear the brunt. As time goes on, we will have to separate the Russians who detest this war, and Putin, and those who support it.”
Still, he believes much more must be done to punish the Kremlin as its war efforts intensify. Russian air strikes on a maternity hospital in the besieged Ukranian city of Mariupol last week horrified the world, with a video posted by president Volodymyr Zelensky showing glimpses of a cot, children’s beds and toys covered in ash and debris.
“As quickly as possible we need to sanction all of the wealthiest oligarchs from Russia. We have gone after some, but there are many more to go. These are the people who support the regime and they need to be cut off from their Western assets so the regime doesn’t have access,” says Browder.
“I think the oligarchs are like voodoo dolls for Putin. Every time we stick a needle in one by sanctioning them, Putin feels it profoundly. Most importantly the oligarchs hold Putin’s wealth on his behalf – when we are freezing their assets we are really freezing his.”
He argues companies must also cease doing business in Russia, while those who have knowledge of Putin’s wealth “should come forward and share that with Western governments”.
“Western enablers of Russian oligarchs should find themselves turned away at the border of countries who disapprove of their conduct,” Browder emphasises.
One area he doesn’t seem particularly concerned about, however, is the friendship between Russia and China. A number of Russian banks are opening retail accounts dealing in yuan, or turning to China’s UnionPay system to provide bank cards after boycotts by Visa and Mastercard.
But Browder believes the friendship can only go so far: “Russia and China have always been close. At the same time they’re strategic competitors so they can’t get that close. Moreover, don’t expect China to do anything for free for Russia. They will extract their pound of flesh at every opportunity.”
His focus on ensuring the Magnitsky Act is “aggressively implemented” globally has become “infinitely more important” since Putin’s invasion.
Since watching Munich: The Edge of War just as Putin was deploying troops to the border with Ukraine last month and “seeing so many parallels between now and Germany in 1938″, Browder has been unable to switch off.
“I used to unwind every evening by watching mini series on Netflix, but since the invasion I can’t pull myself away from the television news, trying to understand what’s going on and how bad things are getting.”
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