(NewsNation) — Bill Browder is the founder and CEO of Hermitage Capital, which advised the largest foreign investment fund in Russia — until 2005. Browder is also the author of “Red Notice” detailing his expulsion from Russia and the arrest, torture and then death of his attorney, Sergei Magnitsky, who was being held in Russian custody.
Since then, Russian President Vladimir Putin has issued several arrest warrants for Browder, accusing him of financial fraud. However, Interpol deemed each attempt as politically motivated and rejected Putin’s calls for him to be extradited to Russia. Browder was arrested once in Europe, but was released hours later after Interpol declared the charges political.
Browder says Putin wants him dead. After so many encounters with Putin, Browder’s main message to the world is not to underestimate the Russian leader — and the West needs to do more to stop him now.
This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Marni Hughes: Bill, it is a pleasure to talk to you, I wish it were under different circumstances, we are in scary times. I want to start by talking to you about Vladimir Putin, you know him better than most and what it may take to stop him. Will Putin be the one to determine how this ends?
Bill Browder: There’s only one person who will determine how it’s in how it ends, and that’s Vladimir Putin. Putin can’t be coerced, he can’t be reasoned with, he can’t be negotiated with. He only knows one thing, which is escalate, escalate, escalate. He’s a man with a total character flaw, where there’s no admission of mistakes, there’s no showing weakness. And that should dictate how we deal with him, which is that he’s not gonna back down. And the only way that we can stop him from this terrible atrocity that he’s committing is to just bleed him dry of his resources to make sure that he doesn’t have the money to carry on with his execution of the war on Ukraine. And that is the that should be the only objective right now of the West.
Marni: I’m curious. In the past, he’s been described as cold and calculated, but as of late, he has been described as unhinged, and some even going so far as to call him a madman. Which is it? And has it changed over the last 15 years?
Bill: I think he’s exactly the same man that I’ve seen. Over the last 15 years, I’ve been involved in a sort of really head to head conflict with him. Ever since the Magnitsky Act was passed he’s been trying to kill me, having me arrested, do all sorts of terrible things to me. And what I see with Vladimir Putin is that, you know, yes, he’s made a huge mistake here in Ukraine. But he made a calculated bet that just turned out really wrong. He thought that the West wouldn’t do anything, because the West in the past hasn’t done anything. He invaded Georgia, we didn’t impose sanctions and cut off his central bank reserves. He, he took Crimea invaded Eastern Ukraine and there and there was no companies pulling out of Russia. He shot down MH17 with 298 passengers on board, and there were no oligarchic sanctions. And so he was of the opinion that he could go into Ukraine, and we would all huff and puff and it would just be another thing, like everything else he’s done. And, and so he’s not unhinged, he just made a sort of an educated bet, he thought past performance will be future performance, and all all of a sudden this time he crossed the line, and the West did respond. And so I think he’s now in a very, very uncomfortable position, because he doesn’t know how to negotiate or back down. He has no reverse gear, and so he’s kind of pushing himself forward in an untenable situation. But it’s not because he’s crazy. It’s just because, you know, this is Vladimir Putin. This is how he operates.
Marni: He’s been backed into a corner. We do know he is capable of chemical warfare. Do you believe he’s capable of something even worse?
Bill: There’s no question. Vladimir Putin doesn’t have an ounce of morality, civility, empathy in his body. He will do absolutely anything within his power to to protect himself and just himself. He doesn’t care about Russia. He cares about himself. He’s interested in staying in power. He’s terrified if he were to be deposed, that he’d end up jail and dead. And so this is all about protecting Vladimir Putin from being overthrown. And he will do anything. And and that’s the scary part is that we’re all faced with a situation we’ve never seen before. Almost every other world leader we’ve ever been in conflict with has had some concept of national interests. Vladimir Putin has none of that.
Marni: I’ve often said, “we know he wants to win, but is he more afraid of losing his power going forward?” I want to talk about Americans being detained right now. There are several. High profile WNBA star Brittney Griner, we’ve got Trevor Reed Paul Whelan. I spoke to a mother yesterday from Minnesota; her son was taken off a bus leaving Ukraine he is now being detained. How concerned are you, given your history, given what you know about those Americans who are in custody while Putin is in power?
Bill: Well, it’s always been a problem. Putin is a hostage taker. He he took my lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, hostage and then slowly tortured him to death. This is what he does. He likes bargaining chips and he has no concern for people’s human rights or prison conditions or anything like that. And you know, that was before the invasion. Now we now he’s in a situation where we have frozen all of his central bank reserves, we’ve sanctioned his banks, his oligarchy, all this kind of stuff. I don’t see any sort of diplomatic way to resolve this situation with with these hostages at all. It’s a sad situation. I’ve been in touch with Paul Whelan’s family, one of the three hostages you mentioned. And over the years, it’s just, you know, where’s the leverage? Then in this new hostage, they’ve taken Britney, you know, it’s even a worse situation for her because she’s not white, and she’s LGBT and those things put her in grave risk in a in a Russian prison. And so it’s really not a not a good situation at all.
Marni: It’s a scary thought. You have said that you support a no-fly zone over Ukraine. Explain your reasoning when there is so much at stake?
Bill: Well, there’s so much at stake. No matter what situation we’re in, we should understand that if Vladimir Putin were to win in Ukraine, then the next stop is Estonia, or Latvia. And at that point, those are NATO countries. And he’ll be pointing his guns at those countries, and probably pointing his nukes at Berlin, London, and Washington. And then he would say to us, “Do you want to go to war with me? A nuclear war, potentially, over Estonia?” And then all of a sudden, we would be having conversations and pundits will be on the news saying, “Where is Estonia? Why are we getting ready to lose 100 million Americans over a country that we can’t even identify on a map?” That’s it. This is calculus, that’s what Vladimir Putin is thinking. And so we absolutely don’t ever want to be in that position. And in the best way of avoiding that is to help the Ukrainians in every way possible fight their war. They’re the buffer zone. They’re the ones who are fighting for us. They’re the ones preventing Putin from coming and fighting with us directly. And the idea that we’re going to enter into World War III requires him to enter into World War III as well. In other words, he’s got to decide that and he can barely take on the Ukrainian army where he’s 10 times more powerful than them. I don’t think he wants to take on NATO.
Marni: It’s getting desperate. President Biden did call Putin a war criminal yesterday for the first time, to which the Kremlin responded saying that that is unforgivable. First of all, what does that mean? And what more do you think the U.S. should be doing in this moment?
Bill: Well, those are good words. And I appreciate the President saying that because that’s the truth. Vladimir Putin is a war criminal. He’s committing crimes against humanity. He’s murdering people for absolutely no reason. The Ukrainians have done nothing to him, there was nothing that they did to deserve this, certainly not the civilians, and and no Ukrainian has done anything to him. And the fact that the most powerful man in the free world has called him a war criminal is very important. I think going forward, we have to do everything possible to surround him economically, to cut him off in every possible way so he has no more money to execute this war. As I mentioned, I think there should be a no-fly zone, we cannot watch these atrocities being committed day after day after day of innocent men, women and children in Ukraine that have nothing to do with this conflict. And I think that we have to stop saying we don’t want to go to war with Russia. If we think that we should just keep it to ourselves. To repeat it over and over again is basically permission to for Vladimir Putin to commit a genocide, and that’s just not right and not good.
Marni: Many are worried about oil and gas prices, and they should be right now. But you say food prices are another major concern. Why?
Bill: Well, Ukraine is one of the major bread baskets of the world. So is Russia for that matter. Fertilizer prices are up dramatically. And these things will produce a massive spike in the cost of living. And by the way, this is one of Putin’s other objectives. In addition to fighting the Ukrainians, he wants to fight the Westerners by creating a flood of millions and millions of refugees, which he’s done. He wants to push up gas prices, both to hurt us and to help him, and he wants to push up food prices and inflation because he knows how vulnerable we are to that. And so when he wants to create chaos, he can and he is and that’s part of his whole modus operandi.
Marni: A major part of this conversation is the oligarchs. You have said that we’re only scratching the surface sanctioning Russian oligarchs at this point. How so and what more should be done?
Bill: At this point, we’ve sanctioned between a dozen two dozen oligarchs, and there’s 100 of them. These oligarchs hold Putin’s cash offshore. These oligarchs have a lot of their own cash offshore. As Putin’s money is drying up, he will want that cash, and we should make sure that he’s not able to get it. And we’ve sanctioned some good ones, and I think it’s been a good job by the U.S., E.U., U.K. and Canada. But there’s a lot more to do. We’ve only scratched the surface. There’s a lot more oligarchs to be sanctioned, and they should be sanctioned in a very quick and deliberate way so that money doesn’t come back to Russia.
Marni: I wonder, is there any one, or several, oligarchs that Putin is willing to listen to? And do you believe that an oligarch rebellion, which is being discussed, is even a possibility?
Bill: Putin doesn’t listen to anybody, and the oligarchs are all there at Vladimir Putin’s pleasure. At any point, he can put them in jail, take all their money away or kill them. They understand that and none of them will ever rise up against him. That’s just not a not a realistic possibility.
Marni: You do say we should go after their wives, their mistresses. How so?
Bill: Well, I was joking on Twitter today because the major Western company that makes Botox has stopped supplying Botox to to Russia, so that that’s where that comes from. But there’s something serious in the joke. In addition to sanctioning oligarchs, they keep their money in the names of relatives, friends, mistresses, etc. When we’re looking at the sanctions program, we can’t look at just the individuals, we have to look at the people around them.
Marni: Everything’s on the table real quickly. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has become a war hero. He is brave, he is defiant in the face of danger. What do you make of his stance right now and how he has been able to rally the world with this type of support.
Bill: You never really know a person until you see them under duress. And President Zelenskyy has risen unbelievably under this terrible situation of duress to lead the Ukrainian people, to lead the world and to use the power and his speech and his power of persuasion to get the West to do what they should be doing in a lot of different cases. I have enormous respect for this man and and admiration for him, watching him rise to this occasion. And thank God the Ukrainians have him because it’s such an important job and he’s doing it so well right now.
Marni: How much do you think that gets under Vladimir Putin skin?
I think it’s it infuriates Vladimir Putin. He’s showing Putin such disrespect. His army is fighting Putin tooth and nail. And this is not this was not in Putin’s plans. He had no, no idea that this was going to happen. And he’s very, very upset.