Russia is in the news every day for its support, overt or covert, of Donald Trump.
But Bill Browder — who knows Russian President Vladimir Putin up close and personal — warns of a far darker side to the Kremlin strongman. Browder is the CEO of the investment fund Hermitage Capital Management and spent years doing business in Russia, until he ran into legal trouble under the Putin administration. You might have seen Browder on television commenting on some of the recent stories out of Russia. Now, in his conversation with Jeff Schechtman on Radio WhoWhatWhy, he goes deeper into the internal problems that Putin is facing.
Browder, having witnessed the anger of the Russian people over the deteriorating conditions in their country, wonders whether Putin might be ousted by some kind of internal resistance. At the same time, he notes that Putin adheres to an old Stalinist-era saying, “No people, no problems.” So far, the Russian strongman has successfully dispatched his enemies through exile, arrest or murder.
Browder also explains why no amount of wealth will ever be enough for the rapacious Putin, and why he is so intent on sowing chaos throughout the world.
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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy. I’m Jeff Schechtman.
Not since the darkest days of the Cold War has Russia been so front and center in the American consciousness. One wonders if this is the result of just the current president and his Russia-centric view of the world or if the Russians have actually done something beyond just hacking that is making us and the world sit up and take notice. Certainly, Russian diplomats and citizens turning up dead all over the world and a kleptocracy producing great wealth for Putin and his oligarchs has also contributed. But beyond that, what’s really going on? Few understand today’s Russia better than my guest Bill Browder. Once one of Russia’s largest foreign investors, he was forced to leave the country after which his lawyer was jailed and murdered. He wrote about this in his book Red Notice. Today, Browder joins us once again to talk Russia and all that’s happened in the past couple of years. Bill Browder, thanks so much for joining us.
Bill Browder: Thank you.
Jeff Schechtman: Have we all gone a little crazy with our obsession with Russia of late or are there really things happening that we should genuinely be concerned about?
Bill Browder: Well, there’s been stuff that we should’ve been genuinely concerned about for the last 15 years while Vladimir Putin has been running Russia and it’s been a slow catchup from perception to reality. Putin is a different type of leader than any other head of state in that Putin has been stealing money hand over fist to the tune of 200 billion dollars for himself in his presidency. Russia is effectively a mafia organization in which he’s the capo and the only difference between this mafia organization and the Colombian mafia or the Italian mafia is that Vladimir Putin controls thousands of nuclear warheads.
Jeff Schechtman: Is this all about the money for Putin? Is there a grander foreign policy vision? Is there a grander plan for greater Russia or is it really just about the money?
Bill Browder: Well, it replays with itself. Putin started out just for the money. So, when he first came into power, he wanted to get as much money as he could as quickly as he could. To do so, he had to put a lot of people in jail, he had a lot of people arrested, he had a lot of people killed. Over the course of time, he created a lot of enemies and one thing he also did was, while he was stealing money for himself and the people around him, the top people in Russia were stealing money as well, the average Russian was basically getting nothing. If you were a regular middle class Russian, they don’t have medicine in the hospitals, the teachers aren’t being paid at the schools, there’s huge holes in the roads because they’re not filling them. The country was basically crumbling while Putin and his cronies and his oligarchs were sailing around on superyachts or flying around on Boeing business jets and so on and so forth. After a while, people started to get upset and Putin said to himself, what am I going to do to make sure these people don’t overthrow me? And so that’s when he started this whole idea of creating foreign enemies, invading foreign countries and creating this false scenario that Russia is being surrounded and potentially invaded so they need to fight all these enemies. This grand plan of fighting in Ukraine and fighting in Syria is all a huge distraction strategy to keep people from turning on Putin and saying why don’t we have medicine and you’re rich?
Jeff Schechtman: Where does this hacking fit in, this attempt to influence European elections, American elections, how does that fit into the grander scheme?
Bill Browder: Well, Putin loves playing in the shadows. He’s a former secret policeman so he loves playing in the shadows. What he’s understood very adeptly is that for very little money, he can go and make mischief all around the world in a way that nobody can hold him responsible for because he’s doing it in the shadows. This whole idea of computers and emails and systems and voting machines all happened so quickly and the ability to invade, hack, disrupt has also happened very quickly and while we figured out how to do all this stuff with computers, we haven’t figured out how to prevent bad guys from breaking in and so Putin is taking advantage of that right now to do all sorts of stuff very cheaply. It’s much cheaper to do a hacking operation than it is to do a military operation. For him, this is just the perfect asymmetric warfare, asymmetric way of destabilizing the world. If everybody is worrying about what’s going on in their home countries, they’re not going to be worrying about what Russia’s up to in its country and so it serves Putin’s interest in all different ways for him to be hacking, disrupting and doing everything he can to make life in the west more unstable.
Jeff Schechtman: Is there an argument that can be made that a destabilized west could backfire and have adverse effects on Russia?
Bill Browder: It’s a very short term benefit to Putin. Ultimately, if you have a destabilized west, you could end up having wars in the west and if you have wars in the west, you could end up having a world war. There’s no way that Russia wouldn’t get sucked into a world war, it always does, so for him to be doing all this, it’s really in a very narrow way just trying to maximize his own personal situation at the expense of everyone else, including his own country.
Jeff Schechtman: What is your sense of all of these contacts between members of the current administration and various Russian officials?
Bill Browder: I’m sure that the Russian officials have been going around in every different country, not just America, and looking for receptive people in different political groups to see where they might be able to have some influence. Apparently, there were some people in Trump’s campaign that showed the Russians receptiveness and that’s what seems to have happened.
Jeff Schechtman: There’s an irony in that in that it makes it more difficult, arguably the way this has blown up, the way that it has become such a major issue here that it makes it more difficult to do any kind of deals or business with Russia, given the scrutiny over all of this.
Bill Browder: Well, that is the irony. Assuming that he had the leverage that some people believe he had over Trump’s camp and watching the celebrations that they were having in Moscow after Trump was elected, they now have a big hangover because America does have a very, very strong immune system. The American system is very strong and when little bits of information came out which suggested that Russia played a role in influencing the outcome of the election, the immune system kicked into gear and I think the immune system has now put the president in a very uncomfortable situation, having anything to do with Russia. It’s interesting because if it turns out that there was no undue influence, let’s just say for arguments sake that Trump just thought that it would be a good idea to have a friendship with Putin. He wouldn’t have had a different view than Obama had and George Bush had. George Bush had a famous saying. He met Putin in Slovenia at the very beginning of Putin’s presidency and said: “I looked into his eyes and I saw his soul, and I trust him.” Obama sent his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton at the time, with a reset button to say we want to reset relations with you. Both those guys were able to get away with whatever they wanted to do with Putin. It doesn’t look like Trump is going to have that opportunity because the entire American establishment is surrounding him and saying you can’t do any of that kind of stuff.
Jeff Schechtman: After all these years, Russian diplomats are still dropping dead. What’s going on?
Bill Browder: Well, I don’t want to be a conspiracy theorist. Having said that, having dealt with the Russians, there’s a good reason why there are so many conspiracies because there really are conspiracies. The Russians kill people for all sorts of reasons and I’ve seen it up close and personal in the case of Sergei Magnitsky, my lawyer. Sergei Magnitsky discovered a massive government corruption scheme from the outside. He wasn’t in the government; he was just my lawyer and he exposed it and he was killed. One of the Russians who was part of the corruption scheme became a whistleblower and came to us with this information about this corruption scheme in London. And after he gave us the information – and that information was used to freeze accounts in Switzerland and open up a major money laundering investigation –
he dropped dead in front of his house in a suburb of London. Then another guy who was a Russian opposition activist who was involved in campaigning for sanctions against Russia in the case of Sergei Magnitsky, my lawyer, this man, his name is Vladimir Kara-Murza, he was poisoned twice, almost killed twice in Russia. And so they poison, they kill, they do all sorts of stuff as a matter of course. This is what they do. They do it for all sorts of reasons. They do it against their enemies, they even do it against themselves. When somebody knows too much, when they don’t want something to leak, when they want to blame somebody for something that they’ve done. And so people are being killed left, right and center and they do it generally with poisons, they do it with car crashes, they do it with fake suicides. They do it all sorts of different ways to get rid of people. There’s a famous expression during Stalin’s time, “no person, no problem,” and that’s how they deal with stuff. They don’t do it with big bombs and firebombs and machine guns, they do it very subtly in a way that there’s always some deniability but people do die a lot who are connected to Russia.
Jeff Schechtman: I mean we recently had the death of Russia’s UN Ambassador. Is there something more behind that, do we think?
Bill Browder: I don’t know what he knew, but generally, if an important person from Russia dies, one should be suspicious. One should investigate, one shouldn’t assume that it’s just a natural death just because one would do so if the Belgian Ambassador of the UN died. It’s a different story when a Russian dies in these circumstances.
Jeff Schechtman: Given how much money has been stashed away by Putin and some of his cronies and oligarchs already, the question always arises, how much is enough?
Bill Browder: What you have to understand is it’s not just about the money, it’s also about the positon. It’s different in Russia than it is elsewhere. In America, you can be the president and not have any money and there can be billionaires that don’t have any power. But in Russia, if you’re the boss and you’re the most powerful person in the country, you also have to be the richest person in the country, at least in Putin’s mind, that’s how he thinks. He can’t not have the most money of anybody. Does he need to use it? Probably not. He can take all the money he wants at any moment in time from the State to do anything he wants because there are no checks on his power, but for him it’s more than that. He just needs to have that money so that he can be richer than everybody else.
Jeff Schechtman: I guess that’s something Donald Trump emulates in him.
Bill Browder: I think there are way too many checks and balances in America for any American president to ever get anywhere near what Putin has done.
Jeff Schechtman: How does all of this continue to play out, Bill, in your opinion?
Bill Browder: It’s very uncertain how it all plays out as far as Putin goes. Putin has got a very unstable situation, which is that Russia is in an economic crisis. People are getting poorer, people are dying young, there’s no medical care there, people are dying from drinking tainted alcohol because they drink bath gels to get drunk, all sorts of crazy stuff happening in Russia. As a result, people are grumbling and they’re angry and Putin has successfully created this image of himself as being a nationalist, he’s looking out for their interest, he’s fighting foreign enemies. But it’s one of those things that works up until the point that it doesn’t work. In other words, at some point in time, people may wake up and say why are we putting up with this guy who’s stealing everything, he’s making our lives miserable, I don’t believe a word he says. If you get enough people saying that at any spur of the moment, there’s nothing he can do. He could be overthrown by his people. He could also be overthrown by the people surrounding him; there could be a palace coup. Or he could end up like the president of Zimbabwe, Mugabe, who’s been there for 28 years. It’s really hard to say how it all plays itself out. One thing that we can say is that it’s a very brittle, very uncertain situation and the worse things get over there, the more totalitarian they get. I imagine that Russia is going to more and more close itself off from the West and become more and more North Korea-like as Putin desperately holds onto power to make sure that he doesn’t get overthrown.
Jeff Schechtman: It’s worth noting that Putin came to power originally under the guise of being a reformer because there was an element in the country that did want to see reform, that did want to see change.
Bill Browder: Putin came to power after Boris Yeltsin. Boris Yeltsin was drunk, he was corrupt, he was fat, he was just chaotic. Everybody was longing. The Russian oligarchs controlled half the country; 22 guys controlled half the country and so everybody was longing for some stability, for some normalcy, for some reform. In comes this guy, Vladimir Putin, nobody knows him really. He’s got this totally inscrutable face, you can’t figure out what he’s thinking because it’s just absolutely blank, but he doesn’t drink. He goes to work in the morning and works long days, he’s slim and seems to be effective and in the first couple of years, he was even doing economic reforms. So it all seemed good. And everybody thought well, maybe this is the answer to this chaos before and that he’s going to tame the oligarchs. He did tame the oligarchs with one objective, which was to get rid of the 22 oligarchs so he could become the biggest oligarch himself and so, in the end he didn’t turn out to be a reformer at all. He turned out to be the biggest crook there was.
Jeff Schechtman: But it does lead one to think that there is a reform movement, there are people in the country that do want to see reform that could ostensibly rise up at some point.
Bill Browder: Putin is doing his damn best to make sure that doesn’t happen. Anybody who has the ability and the popularity and the carrot charisma to be a challenge to him is either exiled, arrested or killed and I know people who fall into all three categories. There was Gary Kasparov, the famous chess player who is a political operative and they opened up a bunch of criminal cases against him. He ended up in exile. You had Alexei Navalny, who is the top anti-corruption activist in Russia. If he were to run for president on an honest, open ticket, he would win. They’ve arrested him, arrested his brother, put his brother in jail, put him under house arrest and in the most horrible case is Boris Nemtsov. Boris Nemtsov was the former Deputy Prime Minister of Russia, very, very charismatic, very impressive guy, been around forever, beloved in the West by all the Western politicians, a real reformer and they just shot him dead on the bridge in front of the Kremlin with a 150 video cameras all watching the whole thing and they happened to be turned off the moment he got shot.
Jeff Schechtman: What is the best way in your view, for the rest of the world, for the west to deal with Russia at this point?
Bill Browder: I don’t think it’s our place to overthrow him or not. It’s not our place and it’s not our ability to do that. What the West needs to do is understand that this man is an international menace, he intends nothing but bad things to happen to us in the West. It’s been proven that that’s how he is and so we need to contain him. This is a different type of Cold War situation, but one where we can’t let him make another further move in the West. And we have to stop all the stuff that he’s doing, which means we need a very strong military presence on NATO countries on the border. And we need to be doing big, big investigations into the money laundering of Russians in the Western banking system. And we need to freeze the assets of the oligarchs and ban their travel for the ones who are managing Putin’s money, which is a lot of them. If we did that stuff, we would completely clip his wings and he wouldn’t become an international menace, he would stop doing what he’s doing because the West is infinitely more powerful than him if we worked together.
Jeff Schechtman: I guess the question is what he might do in response.
Bill Browder: Well, he’s going to huff and puff and threaten to blow our house down, but we’re not talking about starting a war with Russia, we’re just saying you can’t take another step further. Don’t. We will react if you do.
Jeff Schechtman: Bill Browder, thank you so much for spending time with us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy.
Bill Browder: Thank you.
Jeff Schechtman: Thank you very much. Thank you for listening and joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman.
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Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Putin (Russian Presidential Press and Information Office / Wikimedia – CC BY 3.0) and globe (422737 / Pixabay).