Cable television, social media, and TikTok have given us minute-by-minute updates on the war being fought on the ground. But with sanctions, oligarchs, and bankers, a very different war is being fought.
Our guest on this special WhoWhatWhy podcast is banker and activist Bill Browder who, for decades, has been battling Russian President Vladimir Putin and hunting Russian oligarchs.
As the force behind the Magnitsky Act — named for Browder’s attorney who was murdered in a Russian prison — he understands very well the financial war that’s taking place. The Act, which applies globally, authorizes the US government to sanction those it sees as human rights offenders, by freezing their assets and banning them from entering the country.
Browder elucidates both the practical and the psychological impacts of the sanctions on not only the Russian people but on Putin and his band of oligarchs as well.
Having seen Putin up close and personal for decades, Browder believes he knew what the Russian president had expected when he started this war — and talks about what he might do now, in response to the unexpected.
He details why no one can oust, or even put pressure on Putin, and how he might even kill a few people around him to send a message to others. Browder sheds light on what the oligarchs are going through right now and how they are trapped in a system from which they can’t ever check out.
As for those Ukrainians in Putin’s crosshairs, Browder sees no viable off-ramp to lessen the bloodshed that he fears is ahead.
Full Text Transcript:
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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to this special edition of the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. Beyond the minute-by-minute reporting of the ground war, the Twitter feeds, TikTok images, there’s a broader and more economically complex issues surrounding the war in the Ukraine, and the world’s response to it. Issues that include sanctions, the SWIFT system, the seizure of assets, including yachts and private planes parked around the globe.
All part of the interconnectedness of a global economic structure that Russia, for better or worse, has been a part of. Few understand the intricacies of these connections better than my guest Bill Browder. Years ago, Browder made millions in Putin’s Russia. What he didn’t know was what kind of price he would pay for getting involved in the ever-entangling web of Putin and his oligarchs.
The ultimate result was the brutal death of Browder’s lawyer and friend Sergei Magnitsky, who was murdered in prison after uncovering a multimillion-dollar fraud committed by Russian government officials. Browder has carried on Magnitsky’s legacy, a great personal risk to himself. That legacy and the Magnitsky Act are a large part of the basis of the sanctions that we’ve been talking about this weekend.
Long before current events, Browder’s been leading the campaign to expose Russia’s endemic corruption and human rights abuses. He’s the author of the international bestseller Red Notice and the soon-to-be-published Freezing Order. It is my pleasure to welcome Bill Browder back to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. Bill, thanks so much for joining us.
Bill Browder: Great to be here.
Jeff Schechtman: It’s great to have you here. I want to talk a little bit about the financial side of this because certainly there’s a lot of coverage of the war itself. Talk a little bit about what you see happening in Russia today with respect to the impact of these sanctions, the impact on the Russian Central Bank, how it’s affecting both the oligarchs on the one hand and average people in Russia on the other.
Bill Browder: Well, so first of all, the premise of the whole sanctions is that we can’t go to war physically against Russia and Ukraine. We all, of course, sympathize with Ukraine, we’re allies with Ukraine, but we’re not going to go and start shooting bullets for Ukraine. And so, the kind of bullets we can shoot are economic bullets. There’s a very great quote from the famous chess champion Garry Kasparov that we should fight them in the banks instead of with tanks. And that’s what we’ve done here.
And the sanctions are absolutely devastating across the board for all sorts of different types of people. So, who’s affected? Well, we start out with regular Russians. When they went to their cash machines this morning and they discovered that there was no cash in the ATMs. The ruble was devalued by 30 percent. The Russian stock market, some of the stocks are down 70, 80 percent. It’s an absolute financial bloodbath. And prices of goods of any kind of imported goods will go up 100 percent. That’s the regular person.
But it’s not just the regular people affected, it’s also the oligarchs. They can no longer land their planes, their private jets in Europe. The airspace is closed for all Russians. The assets for a number of oligarchs are now being frozen across the globe. And the interesting thing is that Vladimir Putin didn’t ever anticipate this. He thought that we would all be fighting with each other, the Germans fighting with the Brits, fighting with the Americans about doing nothing because that’s the experience he had every other time he committed such an atrocity.
When he invaded Georgia there was nothing. When he took Crimea there was nothing. And so, he figured the same thing was going to happen. And so, Putin is sitting there scratching his head and saying, “I can’t believe it. I can’t believe that this is happening.”
Jeff Schechtman: You know Putin. You’ve been studying him for a long time. How did he miscalculate so badly?
Bill Browder: Well, I don’t think he miscalculated. [chuckles] So, in the financial world, they say, “Past performance is not a predictor of future performance,” but he was just looking at past performance. It wasn’t just Georgia and Crimea; Russians have sent special agents to Britain, where I live, to kill Alexander Litvinenko with radioactive material. Nothing happened.
They sent special agents to kill Sergei Skripal in Salisbury with Novichok, a banned chemical agent. Nothing happened. They shot down a passenger plane with 298 civilians over eastern Ukraine; it was flying from Amsterdam to Malaysia. Nothing happened. Putin is so used to nothing happening that he thought he could do this, and nothing would happen. And I thought he was probably going to be right about this.
I thought that that was going to be the outcome. And to be honest, I’ve been lobbying for sanctions against Russian officials for a decade. And I’ve looked into the eyes of these European officials and they wanted nothing to do with me.
It was only through unbelievable outside pressure, parliamentary pressure, media pressure, and external events that I was able to get sanctions laws in place in these countries, but boy, did they not want to do them. And so, the fact that over the last 48 hours, the world has joined arms, completely cohesively, and started rolling out these sanctions programs in true devastating fashion is really something remarkable and unbelievable.
Jeff Schechtman: And in many ways, did Magnitsky Act here in the US set the stage for these sanctions?
Bill Browder: Indeed, it did. So, after my lawyer Sergei Magnitsky was murdered by the Putin regime in prison, I tried to get justice in Russia and couldn’t. And I said, “How do we get justice outside of Russia?” And I said, “Well, these people have all this money outside of Russia, let’s freeze it and not let them travel.” And that was the concept of the Magnitsky Act.
And I took it to Washington shortly after Sergei was murdered in 2010 and I was able to convince Democrats and Republicans equally that this was a good idea. Should we allow Russian torturers and murderers to come to America and use the banking system? And at the time, there was no Russian torture and murder lobby in Washington. And they said, “Yes.” And that was the Magnitsky Act. And Putin went out of his mind when the Magnitsky Act was passed because he understood exactly where this was going to lead.
He probably has been thinking about his long-term plans for a long time, and he knew where this was going to lead. And in retaliation for the Magnitsky Act passing, he banned the adoption of Russian orphans by American families, effectively sentencing orphans to death. A lot of these were sick children. And then he made it his single largest foreign policy priority to try to repeal the Magnitsky Act.
He even sent his emissary to Trump Tower in June of 2016 to meet with Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort, Jared Kushner to ask them if Donald Trump was elected that year to repeal the Magnitsky Act. So, he understood where this was all heading. He hated it. He hates it because Vladimir Putin is the richest man in the world. He’s stolen just an unbelievable amount of money. And he keeps all that money with oligarchs in the West. And he knew that that money would eventually be frozen, as it just has been.
Jeff Schechtman: How do you sense that this sanction regime that’s taking place right now will affect Putin personally?
Bill Browder: Well, the way I see it affecting Putin personally is that the oligarchs — so, Putin doesn’t hold any money in his own name. Because if he did, if there’s a document, a bank statement, or a property register, someone could wave that around and say, “Look, this guy’s a crook. He’s not a patriot. He’s a crook.” Or they could threaten Putin, to say, “If you don’t do this and that for me, I’m going to wave this piece of paper around,” blackmailing.
So, he can’t hold it in his own name, he’s got to find people he trusts to hold it. And so, who does he trust? He trusts a number of these oligarchs. And the oligarchs are really good for holding money because they’re incredibly wealthy to begin with. And so, it doesn’t look odd that he’s got all this money, or they have all this money. And so, when you sanction an oligarch, you’re freezing Putin’s money. And that’s why it’s so effective.
Jeff Schechtman: Certainly, if Putin didn’t anticipate this pushback, the oligarchs didn’t anticipate it. You know many of them. Talk about what you see as their reaction to what’s playing out now, and what they’re going to do about it.
Bill Browder: Well, their reaction is panic. They’re on all-day conference calls with very expensive lawyers in New York and London, desperately coming up with strategies, and ruses, and ways of trying to avoid this terrible impending doom. But there’s not much they can do. The size of these people’s assets is so large, they can’t just move them around from place to place. And so, they’re now stuck. These people are in bad shape. And as a result, Putin is stuck. And Putin is in bad shape.
Jeff Schechtman: There’s also this sudden spotlight that is on all of these oligarchs, including a website that went up tracking their jet travels. Talk about that.
Bill Browder: [chuckles] Well, all of a sudden, everybody understands that oligarchs are part of the problem, are part of what has to be sanctioned. And everybody wants to track their yachts and their jets and their properties. And I’ve been getting calls. My phone’s ringing off the hook from government officials all over the world saying, “Bill, you’ve been an oligarch hunter, how do we hunt them?” And they’re all going to come up a pretty steep learning curve, but they’re going to figure out how to hunt these oligarchs and they’re going to hunt them.
Jeff Schechtman: How many are we talking about, roughly?
Bill Browder: Well, when we were going into this crisis, I was saying to everybody, if Putin crosses the border, they should freeze the assets of the top 50 oligarchs. I think at this point, they should make the list longer, like 120. We’ve just been collecting our own list here and there’s easily 120 Kremlin insider, oligarch, businessmen, billionaire-type characters whose assets should be frozen.
Jeff Schechtman: To what extent can they put pressure on Putin at this point? And what form can that pressure take?
Bill Browder: Well, I think this is one of the big misconceptions of Russian politics and the Russian situation. Nobody can put pressure on Putin. He’s not democratically elected by any standard. And the oligarchs are all basically serving at his pleasure. In other words, at any moment, he can strip them of their assets, strip them of their freedom, and strip them of their life. And so, they’re all just sitting there hoping and praying that they can just hold on to whatever they think is theirs and not get imprisoned or killed.
And so, the issue is not that they’re going to rise against him, the issue is that we’re going directly after Vladimir Putin by freezing their assets. And it really is a punch in the face to Vladimir Putin to do this.
Jeff Schechtman: To the extent, though, that they are holding Putin’s money, it seems that it would give them some degree of leverage, particularly since so much of that money is outside of Russia.
Bill Browder: Well, it doesn’t really because Putin can issue an Interpol arrest warrant, bring them back to Russia, and throw them in prison. Being an oligarch is like the Hotel California, you can check out at any time you like, you can never leave. There’s no way that you can say, I’m like, “Thank you. I quit.” It doesn’t work that way.
Jeff Schechtman: Of course, Interpol was talking about disconnecting from Russia, a subject you know well, and was part of what you wrote about in Red Notice.
Bill Browder: Yes. So, after the Magnitsky Act was passed, the Russians really got mad. They got mad at the United States for passing the Magnitsky Act, and they got mad at me for being the person who made it all happen. And so, in terms of their anger towards me, they issued an Interpol red notice for me to have me arrested and brought back to Russia. I was able to get that overturned, but since then they’ve issued seven more. So, they’ve issued a total of eight Interpol red notices.
I was arrested in Madrid, Spain, in 2018 and also in Geneva Airport on these Interpol notices. And so, just imagine this. The International Police Organization is working with a criminal regime to chase after their enemies to arrest them to send them back to their death. And I’m just amazed that Russia could be a member of this organization and Interpol could put up with this. And I’m so happy that today the British foreign secretary, Priti Patel, has launched an initiative to kick Russia out of Interpol.
Jeff Schechtman: What resources does the Russian Central Bank have to be able to deal with the pressure that it’s under right now?
Bill Browder: Well, this is part of the beauty of these sanctions that the EU and the US and other, Japan and Britain, have all basically frozen the money of the Central Bank. So, they can’t use their sterling and their dollars and their yen and their euros. And so, all they really have is their gold reserves that are not frozen. And this puts them in a particularly horrible and precarious position because at the same time as all this is happening everybody wants to convert their rubles into hard currency, and they’re not allowed to because there’s no hard currency to convert it into. And so, it’s going to be like the Iron Curtain, the Soviet Union, where you have rubles but they’re of no value anywhere outside the country.
Jeff Schechtman: As you know, there’s been a lot of talk about what role crypto could play in all of this. Do you see it playing a role and if so, how?
Bill Browder: Well, I think Russia’s the largest holder of cryptocurrencies, I read that somewhere. If that’s the case, and I can’t confirm it is, it would make sense because if you want to take more than $10,000 out of a bank, you’ve got to write them like a long essay about what you need the money for. The anti-money laundering regulations are so tough and tight, but you can take $10 million of cryptocurrency and put it on a disc or a flash drive and hand it to someone and take it around the world with you and nobody’s going to know.
And so, this is the ideal way of defining sanctions. And I would imagine that this crisis will force a lot of governments to accelerate the regulation of cryptocurrencies so it can’t be like this criminal currency.
Jeff Schechtman: How long do you think that the Russian banking system and these oligarchs can sustain these sanctions?
Bill Browder: Very short period of time, because all these companies, these big Russian companies have huge dollar debts and what’s going to happen is they will default. And then it’ll be an interesting story about what happens after the default. If you own bonds of a Russian company as a Westerner, are they going to even allow you to exercise your bankruptcy rights? And my guess, my strong prediction is no, it’s going to be a real interesting expropriation exercise against Westerners.
Jeff Schechtman: What about dollar assets that these companies have?
Bill Browder: I would imagine that if you’re a lender to a Russian company and they have assets offshore and they’ve defaulted, and they’ve not given you your rights, you probably make an application to the court and the country where they have the assets and try to seize them.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk about where all of this is playing out. A lot of it seems to be focused in London where you are and that seems to be a central point of where a lot of this is taking place. Talk about that.
Bill Browder: Well, so for a long time, London was to Russia as Hong Kong was to China. All the Russians came to London. They came to London, not just physically, they came to London financially. Why do they come here? They came here because we have property rights and rule of law in London and they came here because the police never asked any questions about dirty money. It was the ideal situation. Your money is safe, both from the Russian, your Russian competitors, or other people wanting to steal it from you. And your money is safe from law enforcement.
And as a result, over a 20-year period, the amount of money that flowed from Russia to London was in the tens, if not hundreds of billions of dollars. And so, you have every self-respecting crook, government official, and oligarch, and combination of those people has enormous villas in the center of London, in fact, so much so that the average British person couldn’t afford to live in London because they drove up the price of property so high.
Jeff Schechtman: There’s been a lot of talk from the UK foreign secretary in the past couple of days about further sanctions on these oligarchs and seizures from these oligarchs in London. Talk about that.
Bill Browder: Well, I think Britain is particularly embarrassed by this whole scenario of all this oligarch money coming in here that there was a communication written about, I think in The Wall Street Journal, or perhaps in one of the British papers, a couple of weeks ago about how the US government was so worried about Britain being the weak link if sanctions needed to be imposed, and that’s a very embarrassing and humiliating impression for the British to have of themselves.
And so, I think they’ve reacted very strongly in the government here to come up with a robust response to that, which is to go after the oligarchs to seize their properties and so on. Now, all the headlines, and we had the foreign secretary running around all the TV shows and radio stations over the weekend saying this, I’ve been living here for 30 years and I’ve heard a lot of really robust announcements, which end up with nothing. And so, I’m hoping that this is different. I think that everybody understands that we can’t just let it go because if we do, we’re facing World War III if we don’t show Putin the real cost right now.
Jeff Schechtman: How complex is it seizing these assets from these oligarchs around the world, the yachts, the townhouses, the jets, et cetera?
Bill Browder: It’s going to be extremely complex. The oligarchs who have the best lawyers, the smartest lawyers. They’ve created the most complex structures, asset protection schemes, specifically to deal with these types of issues. And so, they’re all going to wave their hands in the air and say, “Not mine. I’ve been living there for 15 years, but not mine.” And it’s going to be a very hard thing to prove because they’ve gone through these exercises, but we can’t let that stop us.
Jeff Schechtman: Besides being a full employment act for very expensive lawyers, will these sanctions have an impact then given what you’re saying?
Bill Browder: Of course, it’s totally devastating. You get put on the sanctions list, even if the government can’t get your property from you, nobody will ever do business with you again. No bank will allow you to transact, any money that you have in a bank account will be frozen, and you’re pretty much — you become a non-person in the world of finance. It’s like let you be a financial leper. And it’s terrible for anybody on these sanctions list.
Jeff Schechtman: How does all of this play out in your view?
Bill Browder: Well, my feeling is a very bad feeling. I’ve been fighting with Putin myself because of the Magnitsky Act for a decade and what I’ve seen him do is always escalate no matter what. He has no capacity for compromise, no capacity to back down, and will escalate even if it harms his own interests. He’s a conflict for conflict sake type of a person. He’s been humiliated now. He’s been humiliated by the Ukrainian military and he’s been humiliated by the West financially, and he doesn’t do humiliation well.
And so, I fear dramatically for the Ukrainian people because after this embarrassment of having all of his tanks bombed out along different roads and trucks running out of gas and planes being shot out of the sky, I fear that he’s going to do something really horrible to try to demoralize the Ukrainians, and I dread that. And I know what he’s like and I can’t imagine a scenario where he doesn’t do that.
Jeff Schechtman: If there is an off-ramp to any of this for him, for this whole conflict, where do you think that off-ramp is if there is one?
Bill Browder: I don’t think there is. I think there’s no off-ramp. I just don’t see — because he doesn’t back down, he doesn’t compromise, and what he’s asked for is so far beyond anything that anyone is willing to give him. We’re not ready to give him the sovereignty of Ukraine, and Ukrainians are certainly not willing to let him get the sovereignty of Ukraine. And so, I think there’s no off-ramp. The only thing that we could do is just a full-on containment strategy, where if he pushes he just encounters steel. That’s how we have to position ourselves with this guy.
Jeff Schechtman: You’ve seen a lot written over the past couple of days about the danger that Putin might be in in Russia itself. Is any of that true, and if so, how so?
Bill Browder: He’s not in any danger. He’s always been in danger of — if you’re sitting in that seat, you get to be the richest person in the world, everybody wants to sit in that seat. He doesn’t want anyone else to have that seat. He wants to keep it for himself until the end of his natural life, and he’s a very paranoid little man and so he will constantly look for traders, for betrayers, for anybody who’s even thinking about it. And I think that one thing we might expect, in the near future, is for him to start to kill some of the people around him to make a point to the other people around him.
Jeff Schechtman: And his clear unhappiness with the Russian military, how is that going to play out?
Bill Browder: I think it’s going to play out badly in the sense that he’s going to then find somebody else with a more radical solution to this thing and that radical solution is a big escalation in a heartbreaking outcome for some group of Ukrainians.
Jeff Schechtman: Do you have a sense of how the world economy will be impacted by these sanctions?
Bill Browder: Well, with the obvious things, the oil price is going to be up, which is going to create more inflation in a time when we can barely afford the inflation. Higher oil prices are particularly bad for the developing world and so you may see revolutions and overthrowing of governments in places that we weren’t even paying attention to because of the oil price.
I can imagine that there’s going to be an energy crisis in Europe because one of the obvious things that he can do is cut off the gas to Germany and Austria and Italy. I can imagine that all of us are going to end up paying higher taxes because we’re all going to have to invest more money in defense as life goes on. And, generally, we’re all going to be sitting here wondering when the next shoe is going to drop, and that makes it harder to make long-term plans, which is very unfortunate.
Jeff Schechtman: Bill Browder, I thank you so much for spending time with us. Your new book Freezing Order comes out in June, I think. We will look forward to that as well. I thank you so much for joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast.
Bill Browder: Thank you.
Jeff Schechtman: Thank you. And thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I hope you join us next week for another radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you liked this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate