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It’s Trump I fear, says Putin’s nemesis

Ticky Fullerton
The Australian
Oct 13, 2022

Bill Browder, once the largest foreign investor in Russia and the man behind the global Magnitsky justice campaign, says the US is the weakest link in the war in Ukraine.

He believes the most likely scenario is Vladimir Putin will still run Russia in five years’ time.

“The single biggest risk that Ukraine faces right now is the 2024 elections. If Donald Trump was elected, anything could happen,” he said.

Mr Browder spoke to The Australian from an undisclosed location ahead of his keynote speech to the Sohn Hearts & Minds conference on November 18. The founder of Hermitage Capital remains near the top of Mr Putin’s most-wanted list.

“If Donald Trump were to be elected president, he might just make a decision not to supply any more financial or military aid to Ukraine,” he said.

“That is not unrealistic. He was impeached, specifically in a second impeachment trial, for withholding military aid to Ukraine in exchange for some personal favours.”

Mr Browder called out billionaire Elon Musk for publicly ­capitulating to Russia in a tweeted peace plan for Ukraine that left Europe vulnerable.

Mr Browder said he wanted Western countries including Australia to act as one voice to pressure India, South Africa and even China to halt their business with Russia. “You want to do business with us or with Russia, because you can’t do both. If we did that, I think almost everybody would quickly fall,” he said.

Mr Browder moved to Russia in the 1990s and took Hermitage Capital investments to $4.5bn by taking stakes in privatised Russian state assets, but he ran up against oligarchs and exposed them for corruptly stripping the same companies of value.

In 2005, he was denied entry to Russia and declared a threat to national security. In 2008, his lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, discovered a fraud committed by Russian government officials that ­involved the theft of $US230m of taxes paid by Hermitage.

Magnitsky testified in Russia against the officials. He was later arrested, tortured in prison and beaten to death in 2009. A campaign by Mr Browder led to the passing of the Magnitsky Act in the US in 2012, a law that punishes violators of human rights.

He gave his account of what happened in a book, Red Notice, which ended in 2012, but felt compelled to write a second, which was published in April – Freezing Order: A True Story of Money Laundering, Murder and Surviving Vladimir Putin’s Wrath.

“The world didn’t know what kind of man Mr Putin was,” he said. “The passage of the Magnitsky Act in the US was just the first step in an unbelievable battle ­between me and Vladimir Putin personally, where I was trying to get more Magnitsky acts passed and he was trying to stop me in any way possible by killing more people, by trying to kill others, by interfering in the US political ­process.”

Mr Browder recalls an hour of writer’s block in 2018 as he started on the book. He turned to check his phone to find 176 messages. That day in Helsinki, Mr Trump had held a secret four-hour meeting with Mr Putin.

US special counsel Robert Mueller had indicted 12 Russian intelligence officers. Mr Putin wanted Mr Browder in ­exchange. That did not surprise Mr Browder. What did was that Mr Trump thought Mr Putin’s proposal was an incredible offer. The idea was quashed when Mr Putin also demanded 11 other Americans, including an ­ambassador, all with ties to ­Magnitsky.

“What motivates Mr Putin is what motivates every Russian who decides to go into public service – to steal money,” Mr Browder said, adding that over 22 years, Mr Putin and his circle had stolen $1 trillion from the Russian people.

Mr Putin’s move on Ukraine is a war of distraction. “This is a war to create a foreign enemy so that people aren’t mad at him,” he said. “It’s to get the Russian people to rally around him. This is a war driven almost exclusively by his fear of being overthrown, because if he gets overthrown, he ends up dying.”

He said the West’s most powerful sanctions program in history was causing great damage to the Russian economy, with huge sums of money frozen: “$350bn of central bank reserves, 40 of the top 118 oligarchs that had their money frozen around the world. All this is very ­powerful.”

The next step was for Europe, which has been weaning itself off Russian oil and gas, to stop buying it altogether. “A billion dollars a day flows into Russia from the sale of oil and gas, and a billion dollars a day is spent killing Ukrainians.”

Mr Browder said it was totally within Mr Putin’s moral boundaries to push the nuclear button, but he questioned that rationale.

“What happens on the day after he goes nuclear? There will be a lot of dead people. There would be a radioactive cloud that probably drifts over Russia, ­because the winds go from west to east. He would have the Chinese, Indians, Brazilians and the South Africans isolating him. And he would not have won the war.”

He said it was possible Mr Putin would lose the war. He could then be replaced by someone from the same regime. The good scenario is that the Russian people destroy the regime and find an alternative leader in imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who would work to ­repair relations with the West.

“The most likely scenario is that Mr Putin is like a cockroach and can somehow survive in all sorts of bad conditions and that we’re still sitting here five years from now talking about Mr Putin,” he said.

Mr Browder has his critics – some see no good players in the privatisation of Russian assets and the Magnitsky campaign is propaganda. Mr Browder responds that this is Mr Putin’s spin. The Kremlin has spent big trying to influence opinion-makers.

Magnitsky legislation has now been passed in 35 countries, ­including Australia.

“The Magnitsky Act is the basis for all sanctions that are being imposed by everybody against the Putin regime right now,” he said. “It is being used against Chinese human rights ­violators and Iranian human rights violators and Venezuelan human rights violators.

“Now all of a sudden there are dictators who are scared that all the money that they’ve stolen and stashed away abroad will no longer be available to them.”

This article was originally posted by The Australian here.

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