The Current

If Russia doesn't care about expelling diplomats, hit Putin in his wallet, says Bill Browder

Britain has expelled 23 diplomats in response to the poisoning of a former Russian spy, but the man who calls himself Putin's number-one enemy says that doesn't go far enough.
President Vladimir Putin and his government have denied any involvement in the nerve agent agent in Britain on March 4.

Read Story Transcript

Vladimir Putin doesn't care about diplomats being expelled from foreign countries — he only cares about cash, according to human rights activist Bill Browder.

Browder, a British hedge fund manager who was once the largest foreign investor in Russia, but now calls himself the Russian president's number-one enemy.

"Putin is a guy who only understands hard boundaries ... he only understands real consequences and he only understands things that he cares about," he says.

"What he cares about is his money."

Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found slumped on a park bench after the nerve agent attack. (Misha Japaridze/AP; Yulia Skripal/Facebook via AP )

Britain announced Wednesday that it was expelling 23 Russian diplomats as a response to the March 4 nerve agent attack that left former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in critical condition and a British police officer seriously ill.

That response, Browder tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti, is not strong enough. He says they should be targeting Russian wallets.

"Britain is the most popular country for Russian gangsters and corrupt Russian government officials to settle and buy property," he says.

"They see it as a rule-of-law country. They think that their property is safe and they consider it sort of a good bolthole to go to if times get tough in Russia."

Browder, author of Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man's Fight for Justice, argues that British Prime Minister Theresa May's best leverage would be "to seize those properties and show Putin that Britain means business."

Right now, he says, the Kremlin will consider Britain to be "total pushovers."

Bill Browder believes he is at the top of a Russian hitlist. (Jared Thomas/CBC)

'On a hitlist'

Browder now travels the world urging governments to adopt the Magnitsky Act, a set of measures that target the assets of Russians officials who violate human rights.

The act is named after Browder's lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in police custody in Moscow in 2009.

Magnitsky had been investigating allegations of fraud involving Russian officials and police.

Browder believes the work he does has put him at the top of Putin's hitlist.

"I've been threatened with death. I've been threatened with all sorts of other things," he says.

Russia has denied involvement in the nerve agent attack.

On Wednesday, Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland condemned the attack, saying in a press release that "Canada stands in solidarity with its close ally, the United Kingdom, and the British people."

The Current asked for an interview with a representative of the Russian embassy, which was declined.

"We regret [the] Canadian Foreign Minister's hasty support for the unfounded and unacceptable accusations on the part of the U.K. with regard to the Skripal case," the embassy said in a written statement. "The British blame game [is] based on the word 'likely,' but not on trustworthy investigation, hard facts and proper international procedures, is highly reprehensible and extremely counterproductive."

Browder says that "Putin is basically in the business of publicly lying about everything."

​"Here we have a case that's pretty obvious. There was an enemy of Russia … somebody attempted to assassinate him using high-grade military nerve agents which effectively only the Russians possess." 

"Just connect the dots there it's not so hard to figure out."

Sergei Magnitsky died in police custody in Moscow in 2009. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/Associated Press)

Find the evidence

The allegations against Russia are not that easy to prove, argues Janice Stein, an international relations expert.

"You need evidence at every step in the chain," says Stein, who is founding director of the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.

"Yes, this is a nerve agent which only the Russian government developed 20 years ago, but it's not impossible — it's not likely — but it's not impossible that a rogue agent got hold of some of it."

Stein says that before May's government can make a move like seizing Russian assets in the U.K., they would need incontrovertible proof of Russia's involvement in Skripal's poisoning.

"Now that's really difficult to do," she says, adding that the challenges that lie ahead will fall to the international intelligence community.

"What can they find? Who was part of what we would call the supply chain? How did this nerve agent actually get to Britain?" she asks.

Stein notes that there were about 20 people who also became sick from the nerve agent, in addition to the two people who are fighting for their lives.

Protecting the public, and stopping something like this from happening again, could be difficult, she says, as the tactics of aggression change.

"What the Russian government has turned to over the last several years is below-the-radar warfare," she says.

"It's doing this with information warfare, it's doing it [with] cyber-warfare."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this page, where you can also share this article across email, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.

This segment was produced by The Current's Kristin Nelson, Howard Goldenthal and Rosa Kim.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?