Businessman Bill Browder, who ran an investment fund in Russia called Hermitage Capital Management, told “60 Minutes” in February that “The Russian regime is a criminal regime. We’re dealing with a nuclear country run by a bunch of Mafia crooks.” In a more recent interview with this writer, he had some words for those American conservatives embracing Vladimir Putin as a spokesman for family values.
“If you want to talk about family values, go talk to the Magnitsky family about what happened to their family, as a result of Vladimir Putin’s evil,” he said.
Sergei Magnitsky, the attorney for Browder’s firm in Russia, was imprisoned and then killed by Russian authorities in 2009. He had uncovered official corruption involving the theft of $230 million.
Browder says people who find some good in Putin “ignore the fact that he is a stone-cold killer and kills for money…”
Browder, the grandson of Earl Browder, former head of the Communist Party USA, has a unique perspective, having invested in Russia when it appeared that the old Soviet system was dying, and that capitalism was taking root. The Magnitsky case became a concrete manifestation of how Putin and his group of former KGB officers were looting the country and consolidating their power.
Putin, he said, acts on the basis of a “Mafia principle” of “extracting as much money as possible from the state and staying in power and keeping that money.”
The invasion of Ukraine has been a wake-up call that the Kremlin is not to be trusted. Moscow, after all, had signed an agreement that was supposed to guarantee the country’s territorial integrity.
But Browder, in a telephone interview, said he believes Putin’s invasion of Ukraine doesn’t stem from some communist master plan to remake the USSR. Rather, he believes it was a reaction to the overthrow of his corrupt ally, President Viktor Yanukovych, whose luxurious presidential home in Ukraine included artificial lakes, a private zoo, golden toilets, a huge garage full of cars and motorbikes, and a new golf course.
“Vladimir Putin is a verified kleptocrat,” Browder says. “He has spent most of the last 12 years stealing as much money as he could, registered in the names of his friends. As he has done this, the Russian people have received no economic benefit from the rising oil and commodity prices. So after a certain period of time people started getting angry, and about two years ago, when Putin came back as president, there were 100,000 people on the streets of Moscow chanting ‘Putin is a thief’ and ‘Get rid of Putin.’”
In Ukraine, Putin “watched a junior varsity version of him—Viktor Yanukovych—who is a thief, but only a small thief, compared to Vladimir Putin—get completely run out of his own country for doing exactly what Vladimir Putin is doing on a larger scale in Russia. After Yanukovych was kicked out, Putin panicked and he needed an enormous distraction as quickly as possible.”
That “distraction” was the complete takeover of Crimea and invasion of Ukraine.
“They used Crimea as a vehicle to distract and build the Russian population into a nationalistic fervor,” Browder said.
Other observers and experts, however, make the case that Putin does have a grand design that amounts to a resurgent Russia seeking to reconstitute the old Soviet system.