Putin's millionaire enemy Bill Browder on avoiding assassins and fighting oligarchs (2024)

Rob Hastings

Rob is Special Projects Editor at i. He won the Legal Reporting Award in 2019 and was shortlisted for the Washington Post's Laurence Stern Fellowship and Amnesty's Gaby Rado Prize in 2015.

April 7, 2022 7:00 am(Updated May 12, 2023 3:30 pm)

When I ask Bill Browder if he’ll step onto the balcony of his office for a photo in front of London’s skyline, I worry for a moment that he’ll think it’s part of an assassination plot. This US-born millionaire turned human-rights campaigner is one of Vladimir Putin’s biggest opponents, and it’s uncanny how many of the Russian President’s critics fall to their deaths in suspicious circ*mstances – besides those who are imprisoned, poisoned or shot.

In the course of Browder’s mission to expose murderous corruption in Moscow, several of his comrades have ended up dead. The threat of him becoming the next victim is very real.

“I don’t eat at the same restaurant twice, because they can put a chef in the restaurant and poison you,” reveals Browder, 57, in his smooth American accent. When making reservations, he says, “I never use my own name.”

Said to be worth at least $100m, he was once the biggest foreign investor in Russia and an early supporter of Putin. But his outrage at the death of his trusted colleague Sergei Magnitsky in a Moscow jail in 2009 – while trying to expose a huge fraud by state officials –led the financier to begin a new career. Based in the UK, he became a globetrotting champion for Western sanctions targeting the Kremlin and its cronies, meeting every politician he can and firing off endless tweets. He visited Downing Street last month and a phone call with a Latvian MEP awaits him after our hour-longinterview.This week he has been in Washington speaking with US senators.

His new book, Freezing Order, describes this frenzied work and why he does it. Browdercould have no idea that its publication would coincide with a Russian invasion of Ukraine – an event so shocking that the UK, EU and US have united in doing what Browder has so long argued for:freezing and seizing the assets of many oligarchs. The book could not be more timely in illustrating why the support of Russia’s super-rich and their funds have become crucial to Putin’s powerbase.

Putin's millionaire enemy Bill Browder on avoiding assassins and fighting oligarchs (2)

Given Browder’s ruthless and powerful enemies, I’m surprised there isn’t more evidence of security in his small office, overlooking Finsbury Square on the edge of the City. It is registered with his firm, Hermitage Wealth Management, but he mainly uses it as a campaigning base.He has arrived alone and only one of theeight staff ishere.

He is sitting down withi shortly after the publication of a chilling investigation into the death of Boris Nemtsov. The former deputy prime minister of Russia was shot dead outside the Kremlin in 2015 while preparing to expose how the country’s military was involved in fighting in Eastern Ukraine. In the preceding year, Nemtsov was shadowed on 13 trips by an agent linked to a hit squad in Moscow’s FSBsecurity service, according to the BBC, Bellingcat and The Insider.

Browder, who says Nemtsov was his “indispensable ally”, tries to avoid being followed like his friend. “Most of my precautions are all about not creating patterns of behaviour… I have to be purposely random,” he explains. “The way that an assassination or kidnapping works is they watch you for a while, they conduct surveillance… They look for where opportunities are created; one has to not give them that opportunity.”

Though he doesn’t want to give away more specifics on how he minimises risk, Browder says: “I spend a lot of time tweaking and adjusting and keeping an eye out and making new arrangements. But I don’t spend a lot of time in a state of fear, because if I did, then Putin would have already accomplished what he set out to do.”

Asked to sum up his arch enemy, now accused of war crimes in Ukraine, Browder says of Putin: “He’s this damaged little man who has learned that the best way to gain power is through brutality… He has no empathy and no morals. He can do the most terrible things and his heart doesn’t ever beat faster.”

Putin's millionaire enemy Bill Browder on avoiding assassins and fighting oligarchs (3)

A scary arrest in Spain

William Felix Browder has definitely got under Putin’s skin. At a summit in 2018 with Donald Trump, Putin personally asked the then US Presidentfor Russian investigators to question Browder. Russia has tried him in absentia, handing down a nine-year sentence for tax evasion, and has attempted to detain him through Interpol eight times. The most worrying incident was in 2018, when he was arrested by Spanish police in Madrid. This event forms the dramatic opening of Freezing Order, describing how he was taken to an unmarked building, denied a lawyer and told he would be subjected to a “medical exam”.

“I could picture what was in there: a bright-white office with a steel gurney, a little table with an assortment of syringes, and Russian men in cheap suits,” writes Browder. “Once inside, I’d be injected with something. The next thing I knew, I’d wake up in a Moscow prison. My life would be over.”

He refused to enter the building, and after being taken to a police station, it transpired that the Russian warrant was invalid. He was released. But Browder also credits a tweet with potentially saving his life. In the back of the police car, he photographed the two officers and shared it with his 135,000 Twitter followers (they now number 339,000), including many journalists and politicians, driving them to immediately demand his release. He says that when his phone was later returned, Boris Johnson – then the UK’s Foreign Secretary – was among 178 missed callers. Some journalists joke privatelyabout how media friendly Browder is, but keeping a high profile helps when in danger.

Interpol says it refuses politically motivated cases and insists that it has never issued a Red Notice – an official request for police forces worldwide to provisionally arrest someone – against Browder. That didn’t stop the campaigner naming his critically acclaimed first book Red Notice, and the detention of Ukrainian opera singer Yevhen Lavrenchuk in Italy for two months this year at Russia’s request has led to fresh calls for the system to be reformed. “Russia should have been excluded from Interpol,” says Browder.

Putin's millionaire enemy Bill Browder on avoiding assassins and fighting oligarchs (4)

Given how Putin clearly loathes him, doesn’t it seem remarkable, I ask Browder, that he’s still alive?

He believes the reason is that murdering foreigners has been too risky even for the Russian dictator. “Putin, up until now, had kept one foot in the civilised world and one foot in the criminal world. He attended the G20 and the launch of the Olympics, he was having summits with Western leaders. I know most senior politicians in most Western countries” – a startling claim, but he certainly does get around – “and assassinating me would have led to some very serious sanctions and consequences because I’m such a well-known figure,” he says.

“He wanted to kill me, but the decision that they made was to bring me back to Russia through bureaucratic legal means – through arrest warrants and extradition – and then kill me in a Russian prison… That was always the one sort of protection I had. But that all disappeared on 24 February. The moment that he invaded Ukraine, and the sanctions were imposed on him, he put both feet into the criminal world – and so my risk now is elevated exponentially, because he’s no longer afraid of what could happen if he were to assassinate me.”

Browder lives in the UK, having obtained a British passport in 1998. Does he feel well protected by the authorities here? “They’re a lot more helpful now than they have been. There’s an infrastructure here to deal with foreign terrorism, and those people are well connected to me and my team. But in the end, nobody is going to truly look after me other than me. I’ve got to take responsibility for myself.”

He and his wife Elena have four children. The strain on thefamily must feel immense at times, but Elena is Russian. She understands why Putin needs to be fought and “truly feels the righteousness of our mission”, says Browder. “She’s been standing shoulder to shoulder with me in helping me fight off this evil man.”

“The good version of Russia is Sergei Magnitsky”

Bill Browder
Putin's millionaire enemy Bill Browder on avoiding assassins and fighting oligarchs (5)

Dead comrades

Browder is used to living a dangerous life. His enemies have varied over the years, but there have been occupational hazards ever since he partnered with the billionaire Edmond Safra in 1996 to co-found Hermitage Fund, an investment company based in Moscow. It specialised in buying shares in Russian firms that were being held back by corrupt management – and there were plenty of those in the post-Soviet “Wild East” years. Hermitage would then publicly challenge malpractice and inefficiency in these companies, forcing them to be overhauled, increasing performances and sending share prices rocketing.

Browderadmitted back then that his prioritywas purely to make money. He boasted how Hermitage became “the best-performing fund in the world in 1997, up 718 per cent from inception with assets of more than $1bn”. But this strategy forced him to “go to war” with corrupt oligarchs, leading to Safra apparently hiring 15 bodyguards with four armoured cars to protect Browder, who would alternate the sim cards in his mobile to avoid phone tapping.

Some people would surely become paranoid about the slightest risk, but Browder says “you become less jumpy” to potential threats after years of these experiences. “Over time, I’ve become desensitised”.

After recovering from 1998’s ruble crisis, and Safra’s death in 1999, he was the largest foreign investor in Russia by the mid-2000s with a $4bn portfolio. At the time, he supported the new Russian President, telling an interviewer that he was “so sympathetic with President Putin” who appeared to be fighting corruption rather than indulging in it. In 2004, Browder said: “We want an authoritarian – one who is exercising authority over mafia and oligarchs.”

But after Putin brought the oligarchs to heel by imprisoning the country’s richest man, Mikhail Khodorkovsky – signalling to others that private businesses had to offer state officials a slice of their cash if they wanted to avoid the same fate – things changed. In 2005, Browder was barred from entering Russia, where he had lived for nine years,and accused of not paying taxes. Police raided Hermitage’s Russian offices in 2007. As Freezing Order describes, Magnitsky, a tax adviser working for the company, then reported that the fund’s seized documents were being used by officials to commit a $230m fraud. In 2008, Magnitsky himself was arrested, charged with abetting tax evasion, and held in pre-trial detention.

The authorities “had to silence” Magnitsky, argues Browder, so that he wouldn’t go to court and expose who was involved in the fraud. Held in poor conditions for 358 days, his health worsened. “Instead of putting him in the emergency room, they put him in an isolation cell, chained him to a bed, and eight riot guards with rubber batons beat Sergei until he was dead”, writes the author.

Putin's millionaire enemy Bill Browder on avoiding assassins and fighting oligarchs (6)

“Sergei was a stubborn idealist, a man of just unbelievable integrity,” Browder says now. “The good version of Russia is Sergei Magnitsky. There are lots of other people like him, but instead of being rewarded, they’ve been arrested, tortured and killed.”

He admits to wishing he had never moved to Russia – “I wouldn’t have had to face these horrible circ*mstances and Sergei would still be alive” – but he has no regrets about his actions since Magnitsky’s death, accusing police officers of his murder. This was the spark for his conversion from financier to political campaigner. He convinced Barack Obama to pass the Magnitsky Act in 2012, imposing financial sanctions and US travel bans on Russian officials accused of being responsible for his ally’s death, and other nations have followed.

“My intention was just to raise awareness, I never thought that any law would ever get passed. We now have 34 countries with Magnitsky Acts,” says Browder. “Without being immodest, it’s been the most unbelievable accomplishment, so far beyond my wildest expectations.” The Hermitage Fund’s portfolio gradually shrank and his firm no longer handles external investments. These days, he says, “100 per cent of my time is spent on the global Magnitsky justice campaign”. He is also supporting Magnitsky’s widow and son.

Putin's millionaire enemy Bill Browder on avoiding assassins and fighting oligarchs (7)

Apparent discrepancies in some of his accounts about the Magnitsky affair have been questioned by the New Yorker, among others – but he has angrily rejected arguments that his colleague may have died in prison as a result of terrible negligence and inhumane treatment rather than being purposefully murdered.

He believes there was another victim of the saga, however. Alexander Perepilichnyy, a millionaire lawyer who had been helping to expose alleged organised crime in Russia, collapsed and died while running in Surrey in 2012. A coroner ruled in 2018 that Perepilichnyy probably died of natural causes, but Browder does not even mention this in his book – concluding instead that “the Russians were sending assassins to the West to retaliate against people exposing Russian government corruption”. He has no doubt whatsoever that this was a murder. “The investigation into his death was botched from top to bottom,” he claims.

Following the inquest, Surrey Police acknowledged that they had “faced criticism around the way parts of the initial investigation were handled and we accept that some organisational errors were made in the early stages”, but underlined that “no evidence of any third party involvement in Mr Perepilichnyy’s death was found”.

Vladimir Putin “has no empathy and no morals. He can do the most terrible things and his heart doesn’t ever beat faster”

Bill Browder
Putin's millionaire enemy Bill Browder on avoiding assassins and fighting oligarchs (8)

Sinister forces

Browder is not without his own critics. Hermitage did its best to reduce its tax bill in Russia, including hiring disabled workers in one region purely to secure a tax break for companies with a majority of disabled employees. A 2018 Vanity Fair profile sums up the apparent hypocrisies of his past financial career: “For years, he had played a double game with the Russians: lambasting the oligarchs yet profiting from the corrupt system. He had made his name as an American hedge-fund savant, then renounced his citizenship. He had enriched himself and his clients by skating on the gray ice of arcane tax shelters, property deals, and other vehicles used by the wealthy.”

After patiently listening to me reading that summary, Browder is unruffled. He’s heard it all before. “I have a lot of enemies… If you look at my conduct and my record over the last 25 years, I wasn’t in Russia doing the oligarch thing, I was actually challenging corruption and exposing corruption and I paid a terrible price. They fabricated criminal cases against me… How would I have succeeded in getting 34 countries to do a Magnitsky Act, if I had been all those terrible things?”

Nevertheless, it feels ironic that one of the leading campaigners against corruption by oligarchs is himself a very rich man – even if his grandfather was leader of the US Communist Party for nearly a quarter of a century. I have no idea how accurate his profileon a site like wealthypersons.com really is, I say – but without doubt, he is indeed a wealthy person. Beyond concerns about corruption stemming from Russian moguls, it feels like anger is growing about how people of all nationalities are able to obtain and exert power in the UK simply by having a lot of cash.

Browder says he has used his own fortune and influence for wider benefit. “Money can be a great liberator and it has been for me. I haven’t had to ask other people for money to run my campaign.” But he adds: “I would say that 95 per cent of my friends are not wealthy people. I often really dislike wealthy people. Money ruins a lot of people in a lot of different ways… Money has corrupted every aspect of society”.

Arguing that “sinister” forces do not require millions to be spent – “£50,000 here, £100,000 there, buys a lot of influence in this country” – he says that criminal corruption is his main concern, but the legal influence of Russian money in London also needs to be examined.

“The rule of law here is truly well entrenched – the laws are greater than any individual, the courts here function well, you can’t get planning permission by bribing a city planner. But at the same time, there’s a different type of corruption.”

Putin's millionaire enemy Bill Browder on avoiding assassins and fighting oligarchs (9)

He clearly thinks a lot of his own achievements, even claiming: “I knew who Putin was long before anyone else.” But it’s hard not to admire Browder’s courage in campaigning so vehemently against Putin’s regime. He has risked his life and dedicated years of it to raising the alarm over how human rights are violently disregarded in Russia – and it’s true that it took most Western politicians time to catch up in realising, or at least publicly recognising, just what a malign force Putin really is.

“There were a few people out there in the Western political establishment who agreed with me,” says Browder, “people like [the late US Senator] John McCain. But a lot of other people out there wanted to continue feeding at the Russian trough, and that’s why we ended up not getting tough on Russia when we should have.”

“Most people, when they look at the crisis we’re in right now, don’t seem to understand that this is not about Nato, it’s not about Ukraine – it’s about a bunch of thieves stealing all the money they can from a country and trying to stay in power. Everything is driven by that,” argues Browder. “The $230m that made up the Magnitsky case was one 1,000th of the amount of money that had been stolen from Russia through various schemes similar to this. It defines the entire problem of Russia: it’s just a total and absolute kleptocracy, which drives all the things that are happening in Russia today.”

He adds: “People say there are good oligarchs and bad oligarchs. Well, some of them might have started out good – but when they all made a deal with Putin, they turned into very bad people.”

“Money has corrupted every aspect of society”

Bill Browder
Putin's millionaire enemy Bill Browder on avoiding assassins and fighting oligarchs (10)

Britain’s controversies

Browder feels vindicated with the sanctions imposed on many oligarchs this year. But Britain needs to prevent money laundering which is said to be common through firms based in London, he argues.

“This is a true moment of change. Everybody has finally woken up to the fact that the money that comes here is blood money. By taking this money, we’ve jeopardised our national security. But so much needs to be fixed… There’s no law enforcement here at all. The National Crime Agency and similar law enforcement agencies have no ability to prosecute economic crime. The laws are so twisted that it makes it almost impossible… A lot of reform needs to happen here, but I suspect that given the security threats that this new reality presents, we’re not going to just settle back into the old ways.”

Browder also attacks the influence of Russian money in British politics. The Conservative party has been criticised for taking money from Russian donors in the past, and Browder was among those calling for Greg Barker, a Conservative peer and former energy minister, to stand down as executive chairman of the Russian aluminum firm En+ last month.

Putin's millionaire enemy Bill Browder on avoiding assassins and fighting oligarchs (11)

The Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, and the Institute of Directors had been among those calling for Lord Barker to leave the role, which paid him £3m in 2020. Barker argued that he had a “real responsibility for thousands of employees on the ground right now in Ukraine”, but he was eventually pressured into resigning on 7 March. Its founder, the oligarch Oleg Deripaska, was sanctioned by the UK three days later.

Deripaska had already been sanctioned in the US in April 2018 for carrying out “malign activities” on Russia’s behalf – but Barker said that Deripaska would reduce his stake, which went down from 70 to 45 per cent, andrestrictions on the company were lifted by December that year. Deripaska’s personal sanctions remained in place.

Browder says he was shocked “to the core” to see that “an acting lawmaker in the upper chamber of the British Parliament” could work for a firm owned by a Russian oligarch like Deripaska “and collect a multi-million dollar payment for that… There may be no laws against it, but it just seems so far beyond what should be allowed”.

Browder says his point is not aimed solely at the Tories, because “anybody who has any degree of influence in any political party” is a target.

Putin's millionaire enemy Bill Browder on avoiding assassins and fighting oligarchs (12)

But it goes beyond Parliament, he says. “Former members of the British security services are being paid by Russian oligarchs to investigate enemies of the Russian regime. I can point to firms that have done that against me – people who are formerly MI6, MI5, now effectively subcontracting their services to the Russian government.” He names GPW, a business intelligence company previously run by former UK spy Andrew Fulton. It acted on behalf of Andrey Pavlov, a corporate lawyer who was sanctioned by the UK in 2021 for alleged links to the $230m fraud at the heart of the Magnitsky case.

Fulton’s former GPW colleague, Andrew Wordsworth, told the Guardian in 2020 that Pavlov was entitled to know why he was a target for financial restrictions, saying: “The use of sanctions against individuals is a pretty draconian remedy. Some people would argue that before you destroy people’s lives they should be able to defend themselves.” There is no suggestion that GPW did anything illegal by working for Pavlov.

“The money that comes here is blood money”

Bill Browder
Putin's millionaire enemy Bill Browder on avoiding assassins and fighting oligarchs (13)

The future

Given the knowledge he has built of Putin, what does he think is the most likely outcome of the war in Ukraine?

“I don’t see it ending,” he says, ominously. “There’s a 70 per cent chance that this war carries on indefinitely. Remember, this is just a continuation and an escalation of something that started in 2014. I don’t think that there are going to be any winners or any losers, and it’s going to carry on with atrocities being perpetrated on a daily basis… People will grow tired of it, but Putin will constantly do enough terrible things to keep the sanctions in place and keep the pressure in place into perpetuity.

“There’s a 15 per cent chance the Ukrainians actually win this war. And if they do, then Putin will lose power. He’s looking terribly weak right now. Russians don’t like losers, and particularly losers that have inflicted such an unbelievable tragedy on their economy and on their soldiers and on their reputation.”

For years, Putin has done his best to silence anyone who could challenge his power. The opposition leader Alexei Navalny was poisoned and is now in prison. One of the few opponents still speaking out inside Russia is Vladimir Kara-Murza, who Browder met for dinner in London the night before our interview, pleading with his “dear friend” not to risk his life by returning home.

“In a democratic government, Navalny would be the President and Kara-Murza would be the Prime Minister,” he says. “When you hear him speak, it’s like listening to a young Václav Havel or Nelson Mandela. He believes in democracy and justice and freedoms and he’s ready to risk his life – he’s already been poisoned twice. I’ve been begging him not to go back, and he says: ‘How can I be a politician and call on my people to stand up to Putin and not be doing that myself?’”

Putin's millionaire enemy Bill Browder on avoiding assassins and fighting oligarchs (14)

But back to Ukraine: what’s the other 15 per cent in Browder’s mind? “The final 15 is that Putin does something so shocking – he unleashes nuclear weapons on Ukraine, and then points them towards us and says: ‘Okay, you want to have a peace treaty? Give me all of Eastern Europe.’ And public opinion is so shocked by the half a million deaths and the prospect of 20 million more that we end up capitulating. And that’s his prize scenario.”

Were he sitting down with Boris Johnson instead of me, Browder says he would congratulate him for supporting Ukraine while advocating a no-fly zone over the country. But surely, I suggest, that would inevitably lead to direct conflict between the West and Russia, which could all too easily go nuclear? Ukraine doesn’t “have to be a member of Nato for us to say that we can’t tolerate tens of thousands of women and children being massacred”, argues Browder. “If we’re so vocal about our absolute desire not to engage with Vladimir Putin, then what do we do when he finally points his guns towards Estonia?”

While Russia remains his priority, Browder’s campaigning “has grown into a much bigger mission” these days. “I’m assisting Uyghur dissidents on trying to get Magnitsky sanctions on Chinese officials and I’m working with families of hostages.” He’s referring here to Paul Rusesabagina, a Rwandan opposition leader. Rusesabagina’s heroism in saving lives during the country’s 1994 genocide was celebrated by the film Hotel Rwanda, but he is now imprisoned in his homeland, accused of leading a terrorist group, after being tricked into boarding a flight in Dubai and flown back to the country ruled by Paul Kagame for the last 22 years.

From this low-key office, Browder wants to help change the world. “Governments that commit gross human rights abuses should be routinely sanctioned by the West. We have enormous power, particularly when we lock arms and work together, and that has to be the policy. We have now a template – the Magnitsky Act, which exists in 34 countries in which to sanction these individuals. They’re busy flexing their muscles and baring their teeth – we should do the same.”

Freezing Order: A True Story of Money Laundering, Murder, and Surviving Vladimir Putin’s Wrath’ by Bill Browder is released on Tuesday 12 April (£20, Simon & Schuster)

“We have enormous power, particularly when we lock arms and work together”

Bill Browder
Putin's millionaire enemy Bill Browder on avoiding assassins and fighting oligarchs (2024)
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