Bill Browder is so close to Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago compound in Florida that he can almost see the giant American flag that flutters over the resort.
The fund manager-turned human rights activist is in Palm Springs, Florida, for the latest leg of a promotional tour for his new book, Freezing Order: A True Story of Money Laundering, Murder, and Surviving Vladimir Putin’s Wrath.
A few hours before speaking to this column, Browder drove past Trump’s famous summer palace and tried to imagine the raids the FBI conducted there a few months ago. But his daydream was shattered when his companion turned to him with a joke.
“You know, I could really just turn you over there and Trump could probably make a lot of money handing you over to Putin.”
Browder chuckles as he recalls the moment, but his companion was right. Browder, who built a fortune investing in Russia in the late 1990s and early 2000s before he was barred from the country – and his lawyer was killed for exposing corruption – has become one of Putin’s fiercest critics and, from all reports, something of an obsession for the Russian dictator.
When Trump and Putin met in Helsinki in 2018, Putin famously raised Browder’s name in a press conference after the summit, accusing him of evading taxes in Russia and funding Hillary Clinton’s 2016 election campaign. There’s little doubt Putin would love to get his hands on him.
But the American-born, London-based former financier, who will appear virtually at next month’s Sohn Hearts and Minds conference, isn’t about to lie low.
He watches Putin’s every move and when asked about fresh reports tech billionaire Elon Musk spoke to Putin about negotiating some sort of settlement – which Musk has since denied – Browder is blunt.
“I know Putin and I understand how he’s thinking – and he’s losing the war right now,” he says.
“So, of course, he wants to consolidate his gains. Rearm, restock, take a breather, and then come back at everybody again.
“And, of course, we can’t allow that. He’s killed too many people. He’s violated too many rules and laws. He’s terrorised too many people around the world. It’s time to push him right back to where he started from and make him pay dearly.”
Browder has long argued Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was designed as a distraction – a quick victory that would help cement his popularity and power among a Russian populace showing signs of growing weary of his rule.
But with the war dragging on, casualties mounting and Ukraine fighting back hard with the support of the West, Browder says the war has turned into a disaster. And Putin’s missile attacks on Ukraine following the bombing of the Kerch Bridge – previously a powerful symbol of Putin’s hold on Crimea – was an act of desperation.
“He’s looking like a fool to his domestic audience, and he needed to do something to show them that he wasn’t weak,” he says.
The attack has backfired badly, Browder says. “He ends up killing 14 Ukrainians and, most importantly, he ends up disgusting the whole world to the extent that Joe Biden, who had been withholding really serious missile defence systems, now offers them up. And so, where’s Putin now? Is he better off from this? No, he’s much worse off.”
Could the disastrous military campaign, which has now extended to conscription, finally deliver the uprising against Putin that British spy chief Sir Jeremy Fleming is now predicting?
Browder isn’t confident, arguing the strength of Putin’s 500,000-strong personal guard makes him hard to topple.
“I would never bet against Putin because he has such an apparatus of repression in Russia,” he says.
“The most likely scenario is we’re sitting here years from now having a strange and unpleasant reflection on Putin.
“But ... we’ve seen many, many dictators all over the world who were totally impenetrable, fall. That could happen here … and the prerequisites for him falling are more in place now than they’ve ever been before.”
Browder’s long, complicated and fascinating history with Russia stretches back almost a century. His grandfather, Earl Browder, was a radical who moved to Russia in 1927, married a Russian woman and returned to the US to become the leader of the Communist Party from 1930 to 1945, running for US president in 1936 and 1940.
In 1996, Browder and his business partner Edmond Safra founded Hermitage Capital Management, using $US25 million of seed capital to invest in the rapidly privatising Russian economy.
The Russian financial crisis of 1998 almost wiped out the firm, but Browder slowly rebuilt Hermitage with a new modus operandi: activist investor.
Browder publicly and aggressively exposed examples of corruption in the Russian economy, agitating for change and enjoying the financial benefits as the management of companies was replaced and the Russian market re-rated the stocks in question.
It was dangerous work, but it was also lucrative; Hermitage became one of the biggest foreign investors in Russia.
Browder was originally a supporter of Putin, figuring he might actually help reduce corruption in the Russian economy. But in 2006, Browder was blacklisted by the Russian government as a threat to national security and barred from the country.
A year later, Russian law enforcement orchestrated a scam where they claimed and received a $US230 million tax rebate on behalf of three Hermitage companies. In 2008, a Hermitage auditor and lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, was arrested after exposing the scam; 11 months later he was dead, murdered by prison guards.
Browder switched from activist investor to human rights activist, successfully campaigning for the US – and later Australia, thanks to the late Labor senator Kimberley Kitching – to adopt what has become known as the Magnitsky Act. The law seeks to give the governments of developed countries, where bad actors might seek to park capital, the power to freeze assets and ban villains from entering the country.
Browder says 35 countries have now adopted the laws and his main focus now is getting them to use the law more frequently.
“If Australia and the UK and the US start using it a lot, then also all the bad guys around the world will start to think that the probability is high that if they do something terrible, it will be used against them – and therefore they don’t do something terrible. That’s the main goal.”
Browder is relieved to be out of markets – “It really is a toxic brew right now” – but says the outlook for the Russian economy is decidedly mixed.
While the country is being starved of technological imports (particularly computer chips) and foreign investment, high oil, gas and metals prices are helping. But Browder questions how long that strength lasts.
Russia’s gas customers in Europe are unlikely to buy from it again and its oil earnings will eventually be hurt by a combination of lack of access to vital services (including drilling and maintenance) and the impact of a global recession on prices.
“That combination of things, I think, will basically deal a death blow to Russia because they have no access to the capital markets, no one’s going to lend them money in the future, and they have no access to their foreign currency reserves because it’s all been frozen.”
Browder is keeping the topic of his address to the Sohn Hearts & Minds conference under wraps for now; the conference, which raises money for medical research, will bring present the top stock tips from mangers from around the globe. But you can bet one man will cast a long shadow over Browder’s speech, and his fascinating life.
The Financial Review is a media partner of the Sohn Hearts & Mind conference. Tickets at https://www.sohnheartsandminds.com.au/check-out
This article was originally posted by AFR here.
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Two hundred of Australia’s best and brightest money managers, bankers and entrepreneurs toasted the seventh Sohn Hearts and Minds conference at David Walsh’s Museum of Old and New Art, better known as MONA, in Hobart on Thursday night.
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