Even Vladimir Putin is afraid of human rights activist Bill Browder, who is now at the top of the Kremlin’s most wanted list. In an exclusive interview with Salonkolumnisten, he talks about Putin’s influence in Germany, non-military response options to Russian threats, and about leading a life in a constant state of mortal danger.
‚Red Notice‘, your best-selling account of your Russia business and the incarceration, torture and murder of Sergei Magnitsky in Russian prison, came out almost exactly three years ago, in February 2015. What has happened to you since?
I started writing the book in 2013 and finished in 2014, so basically, four years have passed since the book has been written. I would say that we’ve accomplished a huge amount politically in those four years, and particularly in the last eighteen months.
And I should say I’m no longer a businessman, I’ve put aside all of my business activities and am now a full-time activist and campaigner. Within my activism and campaign, I have a narrow objective and a very broad objective: The narrow objective is justice for Sergei Magnitsky, that is going after the people who killed him and making sure they face justice one way or another. The broad objective is to make sure is his death is not a meaningless death – that his legacy is a meaningful legacy, which will hopefully go well beyond his own story. Within this context, we have a political angle: To get Magnitsky Acts passed around the world which impose visa sanctions and asset freezes on the people who killed him and to also get those sanctions in place for other victims.
Secondly, we have a criminal justice angle to our campaign. That means finding out where the money went that Sergei Magnitsky exposed and was killed over. Our goal is to have those responsible prosecuted and their monies frozen.
Can you outline the progress you’ve made with the Magnitsky Act?
We are now looking at six countries that have Magnitsky Acts, and five of those countries came in the last eighteen months. We started with the United States, which passed the Act even though the Russians were trying very hard to get it overturned, including sending Natalya Veselnitskaya to Washington and to Trump Tower. We have the Estonians who’ve created a Magnitsky Act in 2016, the same day as the Global Magnitsky Act in America, which imposes visa sanctions on human rights violators around the world. The British government put in place the British Magnitsky Act in May 2017, the Canadians did a Canadian Magnitsky Act in October 2017, the Lithuanians did one in November 2017, and then the Latvians did one just very recently. We have Ukraine with a Magnitsky Act in the parliamentary process and the same for South Africa and Gibraltar. We are now working very hard on Australia, France, the Netherlands and Sweden.
Now you’ll notice I didn’t mention Germany anywhere in the conversation, and there’s a reason for that. It is because of what I would call a guerilla warfare against our organization. We don’t have unlimited resources, and we have to allocate our resources where we think there is going to be some political return. And Germany seems to be so bogged down – there’s so much Russian influence around Germany that I can’t help but feel like it’s going to be a very heavy lift, one that is going to require a lot of other successes in the meantime. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t be happy if could get something done in Germany, it just means that I think that Germany is a very unlikely place to have a success in the near term.
Getting back to your personal story, you mentioned at the end of the book that you wrote it as a sort of life insurance, to protect you personally by raising the costs for the Russians to move against you. Do you still fear for your life today?
The answer is: The more success I have in our campaign, the higher the stakes are (and the higher the desire is) from the Russian government to try to destroy me. It’s not as if things have calmed down, they have only escalated. Having said that, it’s been four years since I wrote the book, and I’m still here. The Russians have certainly tried, they’ve threatened me with death, they’ve threatened me with kidnapping, they’re constantly trying to have me arrested through Interpol. Just last week for example, I was flying out of Switzerland and was detained briefly at the Geneva airport on a Russian warrant of some sort. It’s a constant cat-and-mouse game. Last year they put me on Interpol, and for a brief period of time, I was on the Interpol list with the U.S. taking my visa away. There’s constantly fighting and more fighting. They just convicted me for a second time in absentia: I’ve now been sentenced to 18 years in Russian prison, if they ever get me. It is a long fight, and there is a lot of resources being expended on me from the Russian side.
Do you retain the hope that one day you can resume something close to a “normal” life?
I doubt it. My situation is no longer just about Magnitsky anymore, it is about sanctions more generally: about going after bad guys and helping other victims. I think I have picked my place in the world, and it’s a very controversial place. I’m going after bad guys, and bad guys tend not to like to be gone after.
And you run the risk of having your visa taken away while traveling even in the West.
But it’s a minor sanction compared to the other stuff I’m worried about.
On March 18, Russia elects a new president. Care to venture a prognosis about who might win?
I have to object to that right away. You’re using the word “elect”, and there always has to be quotation marks around that word when it comes to Russia. The entire democratic process in Russia has been bastardized to the point where you can’t call it an election anymore. They have created a situation where there are no credible competitors to Putin, because anyone who has credibility has either been killed, like they did to Boris Nemtsov, criminally sentenced, as they have to Alexei Navalny, or scared into exile as they did to Garry Kasparov. Anybody who is a credible political opponent to Putin is not running. Moreover, a situation has been created where the entire country is being lied to about what Putin is doing.
Putin will stay in power until he is thrown out of power or dies a natural death
Through the absolute lock-down control of all media, through censorship, punishment of errand journalists and a culture of self-censorship, nobody can say what really is going on and what Putin or any of his senior regime officials are up to.
And then on top of that, just in case the first two things don’t work, they just stuff the ballot boxes. So to call it an election is an offensive insult to the word “election”. This is nothing of the sort. Putin will stay in power through his own manipulation and cheating up until the moment that he is either thrown out of power or dies a natural death.
What would happen if Vladimir Putin just dropped dead tomorrow? The picture that one gets from the outside is that the Russian system is very heavily centered on him personally.
It is, until somebody else comes in. It all depends on the circumstances of his death, whether it’s an assassination or a natural death. If it’s an assassination, was he assassinated by his own people? You see, the circumstances will dictate what happens. I think the best comparable is Uzbekistan, where the dictator, Karimov, dropped dead. Under his successor, more or less the same policies continued.
I think that Putin wants to create the myth that he’s holding all of Russia together. I don’t think that that is true at all, I think that he’s holding the oligarchs together and the clan wars are relatively subdued because of Putin – but I don’t think that the state of Russia is being held together. All he’s doing is organizing the looting in a very meticulous fashion.
Speaking of oligarchs: You’ve passed Magnitsky Acts in all three Baltic states, which nowadays have become functioning democracies. Why did this work for them and not for Russia?
The single overriding factor was the desire for these countries to become European, and the requirements by the European Union of cleaning up their acts and becoming European. It’s very easy for countries that don’t have boundaries created for them to go off in an errant fashion, and the European Union is the single best thing that ever happened to these three Baltic countries. Their development really is remarkable. I remember going to Vilnius right after the fall of the Soviet Union, and it was just exactly like Russia. Nowadays, Lithuania is a fine European country.
These days, Putin unveiled some new nuclear missiles that he claims cannot be shot down by the American anti-missile defense. Is Russia really “back on the world stage” the way Putin says it is?
Well, Vladimir Putin is really just a master poker player and bluffer. He’s created a situation where he has power far in excess of his economic or military might. The size of the Russian economy is roughly equivalent to Italy’s, and we don’t spend a lot of time talking about Italy’s might. The fact is that the Russian military is not that big. I’d have to go back and do the math, but I think if you combine Sweden, the United Kingdom, and Germany, the size of the Russian military is roughly equivalent to those three countries. And if you add on all of NATO, it’s literally twenty times the size in terms of financing and of weapons capacity. Putin is effectively playing a game of being the spoiler, of being a threatening force, of being the person causing the trouble. And he’s got a seat at the world table for being a menace – not because of the size of his economy or his military.
Still, there is a dominant sense in some parts of Europe that Russia is a mighty and dangerous country. If, in fact, they’re not really all that strong, are we perceiving ourselves to be weaker than we actually are?
No. I think that Putin is just doing one thing very effectively: He has nuclear weapons, and he drops the hint constantly that he is crazy enough to use them. He is more powerful than North Korea because we don’t know for sure if they have nuclear weapons, but we know for sure that he does. And he’s using them in a negative fashion to try to threaten everybody else. But he has no kind of positive, influential power – it’s just pure thuggish, negative power.
From your impression in Europe, do you feel that we understand Putin’s system enough now? Do we ‘get’ what he’s trying to do?
There are two problems: Total naiveté and a complete lack of strength among the Western leaders to stand up to Putin. There’s a very stupid philosophy that somehow the easiest way to deal with Putin is to try to appease him. Everybody has this idea that he can be appeased, and therefore we should just reason with him and not provoke him.
He loves that because he knows that he can’t be appeased, and he knows that most of the leaders in the West are scared and, to a certain extent, ill-informed about how much of a dishonest actor he is. The only thing that Putin understands is hard power, he understands when there are real consequences to his bad actions. And when he sees these consequences, that tears him apart because he understands he can’t really overcome that.
What do you think a successful non-military strategy on the part of the Europeans would look like?
It’s very simple: The entire Russian economy has been stolen by a thousand people in the Putin regime. Those people are doing the damage in the West that Putin wants to do, or Putin himself is doing the damage. However, all those people keep their money in the West, so it’s very easy: We just either freeze or threaten to freeze all that money. It would stop him immediately.
As long as we are talking about money, what is your opinion on the phenomenon of ‘Schröderization’?
You’re speaking of Gerhard Schröder, the board member of Rosneft and the board member of Nord Stream. The Russians have figured out that they can buy people like Gerhard Schröder pretty cheap, and they’re laughing at how cheap it is to buy him. And there are many other people that are very happy to sell their souls for half a million dollars or half a million euros a year, or less – a lot less. We’ve seen them all over the place. And since there are no consequences, Russia continues this poke-around to try and find the places where they get through. Just for example, in the Magnitsky case, a couple of weeks ago we discovered that the most senior federal policeman in charge of money laundering investigations in Switzerland was having inappropriate financial dealing with Russia. Things like that are outed on a regular basis, and unless there is some sort of harsh or extreme consequences to people doing that, the Russians will continue to buy off the weak links and the morally corrupt people throughout Europe.
There are also numerous connections between Western businesses and Russia – the Deutsche Bank comes to mind. In the specific case of Germany, voices are becoming increasingly louder that demand we Europeans lift the sanctions, because only economic rapprochement can rein in Russia. Do you agree?
That is about the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. Russia has invaded a foreign country, shot down 298 innocent civilians flying over Ukraine, killed ten thousand Ukrainian soldiers, and because they haven’t withdrawn from Eastern Ukraine, we should then lift the sanctions and try to engage with them? How can I even comment on that?!
You’ve mentioned that you’d like to do something in Germany but the situation is not yet conducive to a German Magnitsky Act. Could you expand on that?
My impression of Germany is that first of all, there’s a small group of German businessmen who get a great economic benefit from Russia or have lost their economic benefit from Russia. Those people have a disproportionate influence over certain politicians in the German government and in the parliament. Those people don’t make up anywhere near a vast majority – the average German doesn’t benefit from those business interests. But they have effectively hijacked, or tried to hijack, German foreign policy towards Russia. I would argue that pretty soon, Germany will effectively be on the front line dealing with Russia – if you don’t create consequences for what they’ve done in Ukraine, that is. If they are able to plow through Ukraine without any consequences, very soon they are going to be on your border. German lives will then be at stake.
Just a couple of days ago, a local chapter of the Social Democratic Party held a discussion dedicated to the question of “How to continue with the Russian neighbor”. Apparently, that is a thing that strongly resonates in Germany.
It’s like the United States said about Pablo Escobar: “Our neighbor in Colombia”. It’s absurd! The facts of the matter, the facts of what Putin is up to, are so stark! He’s invaded Ukraine, he took Crimea, he is bombing innocent civilians in Syria, creating millions of refugees that are coming to Germany.
Recently, a number of Germany members of the European Parliament and members of the Bundestag published an op-ed in the Frankfurter Allgemeine, defending North Stream 2 in response to another op-ed a couple of days ago penned by several other parliamentarians that demanded a stop to the project. North Stream is a very good symbol for the difficult rapport between Germany and Russia, because even Angela Merkel, who is considered tough on Russia, hasn’t stopped the project. Why do you think that is?
Well, the project needs to be stopped. It is making Germany more dependent on Russian gas. Russia has turned off the gas on multiple occasions for political reasons. So Germany must now become more dependent on a country that uses its gas as a political weapon? That’s just absurd. There should be an absolute German strategy to have total diversification away from Russia, so that if Russia continues to use gas as a political weapon as they have in the past, Germany will have no strategic weakness against Russia.
Why is the situation so difficult in Germany?
Look at North Stream and at who was on the board when the whole process started out. Where did the first agreements come from? They came from the Schröder government. Schröder was compromised even before he left as Chancellor and immediately went for a highly-paid position on the board of North Stream. He then used his influence with the Social Democratic party. And all of a sudden, Germany becomes more invested in North Stream because Germany has put money into it. As a consequence, it is now an economic and not merely a strategic issue, because Schröder took German money and created a problem for Germany. Now it is an economic issue, similar to when France built an aircraft carrier that only eventually was not sold to the Russians. These issues will continue to spill over into political questions, like will Germans be able to heat their houses in the future if Russia decides to use gas as a political weapon which they have on multiple occasions in the past?
Have you encountered anyone who’s been particularly supportive of a German Magnitsky Act? Someone who has helped you, who have offered their political and personal support?
Well, I haven’t been back to Germany to work on this for a number of years, so all the people who were supporters – there were quite a few back in 2012 – are out of parliament and out of government now. To the extent that we start a new campaign in Germany, it will be with all fresh faces. Then we will see where we end up going.
Do you have any immediate plan for that in the foreseeable future, or is this really something that you intend to do only after the Netherlands, Sweden, France, Australia and the others have moved ahead?
I’m very happy to go in and to explore the territory. Maybe, these stories that we have discussed don’t have any impact on it, or maybe they completely stop the project. I don’t know. I haven’t tested the waters well enough to be able to assess my chances, but it looks from afar like a very heavy lift to move forward with Magnitsky in Germany at the moment.
Thank you for this interview.
An earlier version of this interview stated that Islam Karimov’s successor as president of Uzbekistan had originated from the Uzbekistan chapter of the KGB when, in fact, he had not. We have decided to remove this in order to prevent any confusion on the matter.