The financier who exposed Vladimir Putin

Six years ago this week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan survived a coup launched by a faction of the Armed Forces. The statesman mobilized his supporters, enjoining them to resist the coup, by using the FaceTime app on his iPhone. At the time, I was impressed by the powerful impact of such a small tool in creating such a momentous outcome.

I was reminded of that story while reading Bill Browder’s book Freezing Order: A True Story of Money Laundering, Murder and Surviving Vladimir Putin’s Wrath (Simon & Schuster), not only because of the cruciality of knowing how to use the modern tools of communications, but also because there is a huge price to pay when you confront an autocrat.

Bill Browder can attest to that.

The author of Freezing Order is an American-born financier (now living in the UK) and founder of Hermitage Capital Management who has been active in Russia between 1996 and 2008. In June 2008, one of his lawyers, “[…] Sergei Magnitsky, discovered that […] criminals had used our stolen companies and their fake claims to apply for a fraudulent $230 million tax refund.” That’s where the roller coaster ride that is this book begins.

Bill Browder decided he would not turn a blind eye. Following his discovery, Magnitsky was arrested and died in obscure circumstances in prison. The crusade was on, the investigation pursued, but there was a catch and quite a big one at that. The corruption system unveiled by Bill Browder and his loyal band of friends and collaborators went right to the heart of the Russian power – Sergei Roldugin, Vladimir Putin’s cellist-friend who is rumored to oversee his personal finances. Since the Russian president “[…] can’t hold any assets beyond those he accumulated before he was in government”, he […] needed others to hold his money so that no paper trail led back to him.” The Browder’s team established Sergei Roldugin as the proxy. An existential danger for the master of the Kremlin.

Exposing such a system is not without risk in any normal circumstances. Furthermore, it must be said that Putin and Roldugin have been friends for decades. And if there is one characteristic that defines the Russian President, it is most certainly loyalty. According to former KGB senior officer Sergei Jirnov who wrote about it in a book, Vladimir Putin once got into a fight in Moscow after homophobic comments were made about Roldugin and himself as they were strolling in the Soviet capital. It would be absurd to think that the Tsar wouldn’t defend and protect his friend in a more important squabble.

To no surprise, a Russian arrest warrant against Bowder was issued at some point (among the numerous procedures initiated by Moscow against the troublemaker over the years), resulting in his arrest in Spain. He immediately took to Twitter while being held in the police car. This savvy move guaranteed his release and saved the day. Much like Erdogan’s iPhone six years ago. Talk about small gestures having a huge impact.

Bill Browder’s journey was not one for the faint-hearted. From arrests to honeytraps to unscrupulous lawyers and Russian enablers, the author’s quest was very reminiscent of famed spy storylines such as James Bond’s. I often wondered how on earth could he safely get out of all the traps laid before him. President Trump even considered deporting him to Russia during his summit with President Putin in Helsinki in the summer of 2018. Bill Browder was then sojourning with his family in Aspen, Colorado, making him an easy target if ever Donald Trump decided to move forward with his intention… which he didn’t.

I cannot dive into all the details of this captivating and stressful story. Primarily because it is not the purpose of my review and furthermore, I strongly believe you should read this enthralling book for yourself.

Beyond his story and the importance of the crusade Bill Browder has been leading since the murder of his friend, I retain another crucial aspect of Freezing Order. The man thought quickly on his feet, and he played the political game like a virtuoso.

In that regard, two stories deserve mention:

“I warned the staffer that Royce’s committee [Ed Royce was the chairman of the US House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs] was the target of an active Russian disinformation campaign. He listened politely, promising to bring it up with the chairman. I’d experienced enough of these types of conversations to know that when a young staffer promises to bring it up with their boss, they have no intention of mentioning it to anybody. […] If I couldn’t get to Royce directly, I’d try getting to him indirectly. I decided to go to the National Review, a conservative magazine I was sure Chairman Royce read.” Brilliant.

The other one took place at the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly in Monaco in the summer of 2012. The delegates would be “[…] voting on a resolution urging all OSCE member states to pass Magnitsky Acts in their home countries.” With the help of a Georgian TV crew, the author and his team exposed a Russian political operation and “with only hours before the vote, Mark [Mark Sabah was Bill Browder’s “right-hand man for political lobbying] swiftly made the rounds, showing the Klyuev clip [Dmitry Klyuev, a Russian banker central to the story of the book] to MPs throughout the Assembly. […] Any of the doubts aired at our screening had now evaporated. When the Assembly convened, the vote on the Magnitsky resolution wasn’t even close. It passed 291–18. The only delegations to vote against it were from Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan.”

Freezing Order is therefore prerequisite reading for anyone interested in world politics and the importance of defending moral values and principles almost at all costs. The Magnitsky legislations initiated by Bill Browder in memory of his deceased collaborator aim to sanction individuals who have committed human rights violations or corruption. They have been adopted in several countries and he has been able to obtain several freezing orders throughout the world against Russian individuals and entities involved in such activities. This said, the book is also an amazing resource for anyone seeking good advice from a man who is probably the perfect definition of what an über-activist is and how such a person needs to operate in the most extreme environment to achieve results.

I’m not sure if I’ll ever have the privilege of being in touch with the author someday – I would love to interview him for this blog – but I think the first question I would ask him is how he could keep his cool under all the pressure he endured.

Full disclosure, I received this book by happenstance. And I’m so grateful because it is one of the best and most absorbing books I have read this year.

_______

Bill Browder, Freezing Order: A True Story of Money Laundering, Murder and Surviving Vladimir Putin’s Wrath, New York, Simon & Schuster, 2022, 336 pages.

I would like to express once again all my gratefulness to the exceptional Adria Iwasutiak for sending me a copy of this book. Her continued support for this blog is much appreciated.

One thought on “The financier who exposed Vladimir Putin

  1. Peter Duffell

    Dear Marc,
    I enjoyed reading your review. Bill Browder is certainly a most interesting, intriguing and courageous man. He was the star performer at the recent Chalke Valley History Festival (the UK’s leading history literature festival) in June speaking about his book. He was given a standing ovation by the packed audience at the end of delivering his story. One of several lectures in the course of a packed festival week that left a sombre message about Putin’s Russia and the war in Ukraine. Best wishes Peter

    Like

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