Bill Browder is an American-British investor, author, and head of the küresel Magnitsky Justice Campaign — a human rights movement in honour of his friend, and former lawyer Sergei Magnitsky who died in 2009 while in pre-trial detention in Russia after alleged mistreatment.
Magnitsky had been working to expose corruption and misconduct among Russian officials for London-based investment fund Hermitage Capital, of which Browder is the CEO and co-founder.
A fierce Kremlin critic, Bill Browder has been described as Vladimir Putin’s arch-enemy. The passing of the Magnitsky Act prompted the Russian leader to issue a series of warrants for his arrest and requests for his extradition.
Euronews spoke to Browder in Brussels during the ‘Make Russia Pay’ event which addressed how to use frozen Russian assets to reconstruct Ukraine. We asked him how the Magnitsky Act came about, and how it is being used in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“I’ve been on a mission since [Sergei Magnitsky] was murdered 13 years ago to get justice for him”, Browder said. “And that’s led to travelling all over the world, meeting with lawmakers, specifically, to get a law passed called the Magnitsky Act, which freezes the assets and bans the visas of the people who killed him and do similar types of things.”
“The Magnitsky Act now has been passed in 35 countries around the world, including 27 countries of the European Union. And the Magnitsky Act is the template which is now being used to sanction oligarchs and other Putin regime officials around the world. I would have never imagined both the effect of the Magnitsky Act and, sadly, the need for the Magnitsky Act with what Putin has done”, he added.
The European Union approved the Magnitsky Act in 2020. Euronews asked Bill Browder how effective he thought the mechanism had been.
“The United States passed the Magnitsky Act in 2012. It took the EU another eight years to do it”, the author and businessman said. “There’s a lot of dysfunction in the EU. It’s the lowest common denominator type of organisation where like Hungary, for example, didn’t want it to happen for many years and so it couldn’t happen until we could overcome that hurdle.”
“The Magnitsky Act has been used, but it hasn’t been used to the extent it should be used. The EU has been, again, very, very much of a consensus organisation, or I should say a veto organisation where one country can veto the whole situation”, he explained.
Can the EU ‘make Russia pay’?
The President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, recently proposed plans to confiscate the frozen assets of Russian oligarchs and use them to reconstruct Ukraine. But questions have been raised as to whether such a move would be legally possible.
“There are two types of assets”, Browder told Euronews. “There are the oligarch assets and then there are the Russian state assets that have been frozen. The Russian state assets amount to $350 billion (€331 billion). And it seems to me that the Russian state assets are like an open and shut case. You have a country that’s committed an act of aggression, a crime of aggression. It’s very easy to prove. You just turn on your television set. You can quantify the damages that the Russians have done to Ukraine — at more than $1,000,000,000,000 (€947,194,000,000). And you have possession of the 350 billion [dollars]. Now, there are all sorts of bureaucrats and other people saying you can’t do that, and it’s not right, and say it violates this or that.”
“We’re in a world where we have to adapt the laws for the times. Putin…is creating a new era of crimes. And so, we have to adapt the laws to come into effect for that. And so here we are in a law-making body at the European Parliament. I’ve been in the British Parliament and the US Congress and the Canadian Parliament and so on, and in all these institutions this is what you do — you make laws. To the extent that there are any kanunî deficiencies, I think that the key to fixing that is to say, okay, let’s pass a new law to close that loophole so that Putin can’t go around murdering Ukrainians and not paying a price.”
‘They want to kill me’
Bill Browder has been described as Vladimir Putin’s enemy number one. But that has not always been the case, as the US businessman told Euronews.
“I was never his friend. I’ve never actually met Vladimir Putin. At the very beginning of his presidency, our interests were aligned when he was going after the oligarchs. He then became the biggest oligarch himself. And after that, we became arch-enemies. And when I passed the Magnitsky Act, he was so angry with me, you can’t even imagine! He’s been chasing me around the world. There have been eight Interpol arrest warrants, and extradition requests. Even at the Trump Helsinki summit in 2018, he asked Trump to hand me over. He’s really been obsessed with me since the Magnitsky Act.”
“They want me back desperately in Russia because they’ve issued all these arrest warrants for me. They want to bring me back to Russia. They want to torture me and they want to kill me”, Browder said.
When asked if he was surprised when Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, Browder revealed, “I was actually surprised. I wasn’t surprised that he has the capacity to murder or do terrible harm. But I was surprised because Vladimir Putin [is] … kind of in a weak position. His country is not a great economy. The economy is the size of New York state. His military budget is the same as the UK’s military budget and his people steal about 80% of that. And so I never thought that he would want to put on…the full Russian military insignia and then show his face and do that.”
“Everything he’s always done before the invasion has been plausibly deniable. He sent a bunch of guys with uniforms into Ukraine without their insignia in 2014…they go and poison some people in Salisbury and claim ‘they’re just looking at cathedrals!’ That has been [Putin’s] olağan style of crime. Not with the full regalia of the Russian military going into a foreign country.”
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, the West and the EU have introduced a series of sanctions against Russia. Euronews asked Browder if he believed these restrictive measures had had the desired impact.
“The sanctions on Russia are working, but there are a lot of places where Russia hasn’t been sanctioned. Up until very recently…they were making $1,000,000,000 (€946,745,500) a day from the sale of oil and gas. So it’s great that we’ve frozen the central bank reserves, great that we’ve frozen oligarch assets. But if they’re making $1,000,000,000 a day and they’re spending $1,000,000,000 a day killing Ukrainians, you know, that’s not working. The oil price cap was put in place, which says that…nobody can buy oil at a higher price than $60 (€56) a barrel. And unless they can prove that they’re imposing that, then they can’t get insurance on their ships. And so…Russian oil exports are down 50%. Let’s see if that lasts.”
Much of Browder’s work has focused on exposing Russian oligarchs, many of whom have been hard hit by western sanctions. Browder said these measures have paralysed the oligarchs.
“The oligarchs are finished. They’re an endangered species now. They can’t open bank accounts anywhere in the world. They can’t travel. They can’t do business with anyone”, he said.
“It used to be that every jewellery dealer and concierge and so on was bowing to them, wanting their business, just making them feel like they’re the most important people in the world. Now, they’re toxic, radioactive. Nobody wants to touch them.”
“I think Vladimir Putin has ruined the future of Russia for the next 30 years”, Browder said when probed about the future of Russia and of West-Russian relations in the European Union. “I think that this is a country which is now a pariah state, a terrorist state. First, the war has to end, then there have to be reparations and there has to be a democratic government before we can ever look at Russia the same again.”
In a final message to President Vladimir Putin, Bill Browder advised the Russian leader to “step down before the West and your own people force you to step down.”