What Putin’s past tells us about where Russia’s war goes next

Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, but financier Bill Browder said he’s tried to warn governments about Vladimir Putin’s corruption and violence for years longer. Judy Woodruff asks Browder about his new book, “Freezing Order,” which details what he learned and the risks he faced exposing a money laundering ring tied to Putin, and what that tells us about where the war in Ukraine goes next.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The Biden administration announced steps it is taking to crack down on Russia for evading sanctions by targeting a Russian bank, a cryptocurrency mining company, and an oligarch named Konstantin Malofeev.

    All this is another reminder of the criminal lengths Vladimir Putin has gone to over the years to outlast his enemies.

    In a new book, Bill Browder, who invested heavily in Russia until he watched Putin amass a vast fortune and eliminate literally his adversaries, describes in detail how Putin operates. It's title "Freezing Order: A True Story of Money Laundering, Murder, and Surviving Vladimir Putin's Wrath."

    I spoke with Browder a short time ago.

    Bill Browder, thank you very much for joining us.

    The term freezing order, what does that mean? What does that refer to?

    Bill Browder, Author, "Freezing Order": It refers to freezing the assets that belong to somebody who's obtained them through criminal means.

    And that was one of the tools that we used to go after the people who profited from Sergei Magnitsky's murder and people in the Putin regime.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But what's so gripping in this book is just one close call after another. You had moments that have to be seared into your memory.

  • Bill Browder:

    I was in Madrid. I was going to Spain to meet with the chief anti-corruption prosecutor there because we found money connected to the murder of my lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, going to Spanish — luxury Spanish properties. He wanted me to give formal evidence to him.

    And on the day of my meeting with the prosecutor, I'm walking out of my hotel room. And there's two Spanish police officers standing outside my room who are there to arrest me on a Russian Interpol warrant. So, one branch of Spanish law enforcement wants me to give evidence. Another one wants to arrest me on behalf of the Russians who I'm giving evidence against.

    I mean, it was shocking. And, thankfully, I tweeted out the whole incident as it was happening, as I was being arrested. And by the time I got to the police station, there had been 50 calls to Interpol, 50 calls to the Spanish Interior Ministry. And, a couple hours later, they let me go.

    But if they hadn't, if they had sent me back to Russia, I would have been killed. That's how much Putin hates me.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I want to go back to the fact, when you first went to Russia — this was in the late 1990s — Putin was coming into power. And you were pro-Putin for a few years, before he started to turn on some very powerful businesspeople.

    But what was it about him initially that made you think he could be good for Russia?

  • Bill Browder:

    Well, the — so, the thing was that, after — he came and replaced a man named Boris Yeltsin. Boris Yeltsin was the original president after the fall of the Soviet Union.

    And Boris Yeltsin was a — he was a crazy guy. He was sort of drunk. And he allowed the oligarchs, these 22 oligarchs, to steal 40 percent of the country. And the rest of the Russians were living in destitute poverty. And so I and everybody else in the country was desperate, we were all desperate for somebody to restore order.

    And Putin comes in, and he presents himself as a modern technocrat. And he wasn't drunk, and he was slim, and he spoke English. And he seemed to understand. He remembered things from meeting to meeting. And for the first couple of years, he behaved like a technocrat, kind of a boring technocrat. I mean, he's got no personal charisma at all.

    And we all thought he was going to be getting rid of the oligarchs. Well, it turned out that he wasn't interested in getting rid of the oligarchs. He just wanted to become the biggest oligarch himself. And there is an expression that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

    And that was the story of Vladimir Putin. As he gained more power as president, he became immensely corrupt and immensely powerful. And it just got worse and worse and worse, until, 22 years later, he's the richest man in the world.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Yes.

  • Bill Browder:

    He's got a net worth north of $200 billion. And he doesn't care about anything, up and to including invading foreign countries and killing tens of thousands of civilians.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And explain, just in a nutshell, how does Vladimir Putin hold onto the power that he has in Russia?

    You describe corruption. You have spoken about the threats, but how exactly does it work?

  • Bill Browder:

    Well, it's very simple, that he pretends there's a democracy, but anybody who wants to become a challenger to him gets killed, like a man named Boris Nemtsov, gets imprisoned, a man named Alexey Navalny, or gets exiled, like Garry Kasparov, the chess champion.

    So there's no competition. And then anybody who shows up who wants to run against him looks at these examples and said, well, I don't want to do that. And, at the same time, if he's ever starting to worry about the people in Russia getting tired of him, he starts a war. This is the third war that he started. One was in Georgia in 2008.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • Bill Browder:

    The second one was Crimea, 2014. And this is the third one.

    And every time he starts a war, his approval ratings rise. I mean, it's almost like mechanical, automatic. And that that's how he stays in power.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Given what you know about him, Bill Browder, what do you believe he wants right now?

    The Ukrainians have been a — have put up much fiercer resistance than the Russians expected, by all accounts. I mean, how long do you think he's going to continue to push to take over — to try to take over Ukraine?

  • Bill Browder:

    He's never going to stop.

    So, Vladimir Putin is in this war to be in this war. He doesn't care about Ukraine, per se. He cares of about having a foreign enemy. He cares about all the people in Russia rallying against the foreign enemy and around him. And he needs to be in this war.

    And, of course, he doesn't want to be in a losing war. And he is losing, based on all the things Ukrainians are doing. And so there's only one thing for him to do, which is to become more brutal, kill more civilians, and create more heartbreak, because that's his modus operandi.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, where do you see this going, this war?

  • Bill Browder:

    Well, there's three outcomes.

    Either the Ukrainians win, which is the obviously best outcome, not a high-probability scenario. Another outcome is that Putin wins, that he somehow gets Ukraine, in which case he will be then at the Baltic borders, at Estonia, or Lithuania, or maybe even Poland, challenging us with NATO

    The most likely — and I wouldn't put that as a very high probability, because the Ukrainians are doing a good job. The most likely scenario — I put it at 70 percent — is that this thing just carries on and on and on in the most heartbreaking way.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Bill Browder.

    The book is "Freezing Order: A True Story of Money Laundering, Murder, and Surviving Vladimir Putin's Wrath."

    Thank you very much. We appreciate it.

  • Bill Browder:

    Thank you.

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