The astonishing underperformance of the Russian army in Ukraine is attributed to a combination of Ukrainian heroism and down-to-earth morale among Russian soldiers. Bill Browder points to a third explanation: corruption. “My estimate,” he says, “is that 80% of military budgets are stolen by Russian generals, because 80% of all budgets in Russia are stolen by the officials responsible.”
The army was “eviscerated by all this corruption.” Money intended to pay soldiers was stolen. The Grunts, says Mr. Browder, survive by selling gas from the tanks they drive. And that was before the war in Ukraine.
Few know corruption in Russia as well as Mr. Browder. For more than a decade, he has been among the world’s most vocal crusaders against Vladimir Putin, whom he calls “the greatest kleptocrate of modern times.” Anglo-American Mr Browder, 57, was the largest private investor in Russia until his expulsion from that country in 2005. This happened because he was trying to investigate the theft of $230 million in taxes from the Russian treasury, which his company Hermitage Capital had paid. After Russia booted Mr. Browder, his Moscow lawyer Sergei Magnitsky continued the investigation and was beaten to death in a prison cell by police in riot gear in 2009. Mr. Browder has detailed these events in Red Notice (2015) and a sequel, Freezing Order, to be released next month.
Mr. Browder’s tireless lobbying over the next decade – fueled by grief and anger over Magnitsky’s assassination – has prompted 34 countries to pass legislation imposing sanctions on human rights abusers in Russia. The US version is informally known as the Magnitsky Act.
Like many zealous men, there is a touch of immodesty in Mr. Browder’s integrity. “The whole world has joined me,” he says after the invasion of Ukraine by Mr Putin, whose status as a ruthless despot is now undisputed. “I was a lonely voice for ten years. But within 48 hours the whole world joined me.”
Mr Browder, who zooms in on me from his home in central London, is visibly animated when we discuss Mr Putin’s personal worth. “It’s over $200 billion,” he says. “None of the funds are in his own name. All of this is on behalf of his oligarchic trustees.” He offers a ready-made calculator to calculate Mr. Putin’s wealth: add up the value of each oligarch and divide by 2. Half of their wealth is “held in custody” for Mr. Putin . “Basically, to get rich in Russia, you can only do it as Vladimir Putin wishes. He can take it away from you at any time unless you do things he asks you to do.” There may be people “who started out as nice individuals,” but they all “have effectively given in to his blackmail and become his partners “.
The amount of Mr. Putin’s ill-gotten gains, as estimated by Mr. Browder, makes me wonder what the Russian President might do with all that money. “Well, it’s not about having it for retirement,” laughs Mr. Browder. “It’s about power.”
The money, he says, only belongs to Putin as long as he governs Russia. “The moment he’s not in power, none of those handshake deals with the oligarchs are respected.” Mr. Putin has all this wealth “because you can’t be the most powerful person in Russia without being the richest person too be. It’s an alpha male society on steroids, so you’ve got to be the biggest, meanest, richest person if you want to be the dictator.”
Mr. Browder describes this as “medieval. It’s not civilized.” In America, he points out, “you can be rich and have no political power, or you can be powerful and have no money. But in Russia you have to have everything.”
He says Mr Putin has watched with concern the political unrest in Belarus, where a pro-democracy movement has weakened Alexander Lukashenko, the local dictator. The Russian ruler was also spooked by events in Kazakhstan, where the country’s strongman Nursultan Nazarbayev was toppled in a popular revolt over gasoline prices in 2019. “Putin understands that something like this could happen to him. Any dictatorship can change in the blink of an eye.”
Mr Browder believes Mr Putin felt a comparable shiver of insecurity in 2008 when he invaded Georgia and in 2014 when he invaded eastern Ukraine and annexed Crimea. This year, too, “Putin believed he needed a good war. So the basic motivation for invading Ukraine was to remain in power.”
The invasion could turn out to be a miscalculation forever. The US, Britain and the European Union surprised Mr Putin with the severity of their sanctions – and surprised Mr Browder too. “We’ve surpassed our own history in dramatic ways,” he says. He lists Putin’s previous transgressions that went unpunished or provoked inadequate sanctions: the 2008 and 2014 invasions, the 2014 downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, and the 2018 poisoning of two Russian citizens with a nerve agent in the British city of Salisbury.
“Putin looked to the West and said, ‘I don’t think anything serious will happen this time.’ And then suddenly something damn serious happened, which was a total economic blockade of Russia.” That was “even more extreme than I could have ever imagined that I might have even asked them, based on my own thoughts on what the West is capable of.” is.”
He is particularly surprised – and pleased – that the West is attacking Russia’s oligarchs “on a broad basis”. “For the last 10 years he has been shouting from the rooftops that if you want to see his Putin, you should go after his money. And if you want to go after his money, go after the oligarchs.” In the past, the West has always imposed sanctions on government officials “or any nobody who didn’t matter. “We meet people on the Forbes list, at the bottom. That impresses me a lot.”
When Mr Putin invaded Georgia, he cited provocations from Tbilisi. “Putin played these games of plausible denial,” says Mr. Browder. “We had the intelligence to tell us exactly what happened, but we kept it to ourselves.” This time, a month before the invasion, the US and Britain shared their information “on the nightly news, in every country every government”. So when Mr. Putin “tried to do his thing with plausible denial by saying there was a provocation that it was the Ukrainians’ fault, everyone had a common set of facts to respond to. And anyone with the slightest inclination to placate Putin couldn’t justify it because it just wasn’t true.”
But the sanctions against Russia still have a long way to go before they would really satisfy Mr. Browder. “What has been done so far? We froze the assets of the Central Bank of Russia so it has no access to its dollars, sterling, euros, yen, Swiss francs and Canadian dollars.” That’s about $350 billion — “quite impressive because that was Putin’s war chest.”
The West has also disconnected “about 70%” of Russian banks from the Swift financial system. But that leaves a third of Russian banks within Swift, including Sberbank,
the biggest. “What is logical? If you can’t make international payments with one group of banks, move them to the other group of banks.” Until the West separates all Russian banks from Swift, that’s an “incomplete sanction,” Browder says.
He also wants the oligarchs to be hit as hard and as widely as possible. “The central bank is where the government’s internal money is kept – the war chest. But the oligarchs have the external money – Putin’s money – in amounts even greater than the central bank’s reserves.” So far, only about a dozen oligarchs have been sanctioned. “We got some good ones – Roman Abramovich and Oleg Deripaska and Igor Sechin. The problem is that there are 100 oligarchs. To get this right, we need to sanction another 88.”
Mr. Browder is also impatient that the West will continue to buy oil and gas from Russia. He concedes that given countries like Italy and Austria’s total dependence on Russian energy and Germany’s dependence on Russia for 40% of its energy, this will be “hard to stop”. “All of this brings in between half a billion and a billion dollars a day for the Russians” – so that Mr. Putin can finance his war.
The West must also lean heavily on China “to avoid becoming Putin’s lender of last resort,” says Browder. “If we do that, he will be completely shut down economically.” The Chinese experienced a “rude awakening watching what happened to Putin,” and that will make them want to keep Mr. Putin a secret: “You can don’t do it on a large scale without getting caught.” What helps the West is that the Chinese are “mercantilist” and therefore reluctant to lose markets to sanctions.
Years of feuding with Mr Putin has taught Mr Browder that the Russian president has a “prison psychology”. He absolutely cannot allow anyone to disrespect him.” Anyone who does this must be attacked, “not just a little, but gutted”. By and large, says Mr. Browder, Ukraine has disregarded Mr. Putin. “He wanted Ukraine to be a subservient country to Russia, and they didn’t want that.” They wanted to be part of the EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. “They wanted to be a democracy, not part of Russia. And so the only answer to that is absolute annihilation in his mind.”
The Russians have undertaken small but notable acts of individual and collective protest. But too many seem complacent, perhaps unaware of the true nature of the war in Ukraine being waged on their behalf. Mr Putin’s information blockade, says Mr Browder, is “one of the toughest nuts to crack”. He shut down all genuine sources of information and “bombarded the Russian people with an outright lie.” But information leaks out. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s
video message went viral in Russian [social] Media networks.” Addressing the Russian people directly for nine minutes, the former California governor talks about “the terrible things you should know about” that the Russian army is doing in Ukraine.
And there is one thing Mr Putin cannot block: “Whatever information blockade he erects cannot prevent mothers from mourning their dead sons. And for every dead son there is family, friends, parents, siblings who will feel that pain.” Ukrainian sources estimate that Russia lost as many troops in the first month of the invasion as the Soviet Union lost in Afghanistan.
“There may not be an uprising by the oligarchs, but there can be an uprising by the mothers.”
Mr. Varadarajan, a contributor to the journal, is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the Classical Liberal Institute at NYU Law School.
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https://www.wsj.com/articles/a-veteran-putin-foe-sizes-up-ukraine-bill-browder-seize-oligarchs-russia-banking-11648238559 A veteran anti-Putin enemy assesses the reaction to the war in Ukraine