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International sanctions imposed on President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia froze his personal assets. Or, at least, the assets he appears to own.
More effective, perhaps, are the sanctions against the Russian oligarchs in Mr. Putin’s orbit. That’s not necessarily because these well-connected, globe-trotting billionaires could put pressure on the president to change course on the war in Ukraine. According to William F. Browder, it’s because much of their extensive wealth is held on behalf of Mr. Putin.
Mr. Browder, once a major investor in Russia, has become one of the Kremlin’s biggest enemies. Russia has tried several times to get Interpol to issue arrest orders against him. And he is such a thorn in Mr. Putin’s side that the Russian president singled him out by name during his first official summit with President Donald J. Trump.
What did he do to attract such ire? Mr. Browder ran one of the largest hedge funds in Russia in the late 1990s and early 2000s. But his public battles against corporate corruption eventually prompted his expulsion from Russia in 2005 as a “threat to national security.”
In 2009, his tax lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, who was investigating government money laundering, was arrested and later died in a Moscow prison nearly a year later, at age 37. In 2012, Congress passed the Magnitsky Act, which punished Russians involved in the lawyer’s death with sanctions. At Mr. Browder’s urging, similar laws have been passed around the world.
That makes Mr. Browder highly knowledgeable about the effects that sanctions have on Russia’s political and business elite, not least Mr. Putin. Now that world leaders are imposing round after round of sanctions on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, he brings a unique perspective on how these actions may influence Mr. Putin’s calculations.
Ahead of the release of his new book, “Freezing Order,” DealBook spoke with Mr. Browder about how to end the war in Ukraine, the influence that oligarchs wield and what really motivates Mr. Putin. The conversation has been edited and condensed.
What do you think Mr. Putin’s endgame is at this point?
Putin is a dictator. One of the great benefits of dictatorship is that he can steal as much money as he chooses. And he chooses to steal a lot.
After a while, in a country where people sort of think they’re in a democracy, they start to see that they’re hungry and not being cared for in hospitals and their children aren’t being educated. They start getting angry, and they get angry at the guy in charge. And so every once in a while, the guy in charge has to do something to make people less angry at him.
The purpose of these wars is that he was afraid of being overthrown. And so the best way to do that is to get everyone to rally around the leader. And so when you’re talking about an endgame, there is no endgame. This is just him staying in power.
As a longtime target of Mr. Putin’s — and someone who I imagine has tried to better understand what motivates him — what do you think he is thinking?
The problem is that there’s some psychological features that feed into this whole thing, which make it a particularly toxic brew. The world that he lives in is like a prison yard. This is a world where everybody is sort of eyeing each other up aggressively, and everybody has to show strength to each other. You know, the most powerful person in a yard has to be the most vicious person in order to keep their power.
And so his idea was to just destroy Ukraine and then thump his chest and show everybody how powerful he is. But his misjudgment in how effectively the Ukrainians are fighting back has made him look stupid. And for a prison yard type of person, that’s the worst thing that could ever happen.
Do you think he understands that?
Do you think everyone around him is a yes man?
It’s not just the people around him. It’s also the people in the West. The Ukrainians have shown him huge disrespect by successfully fighting back. And so, for example, the war crimes that have been committed are not by accident. This is part of his thing.
He’s got to show that he and his people and everybody around him are so vicious. They’ll just keep on escalating and upping the ante, and they don’t care what people think about them. In fact, they want people to think this bad stuff about them because that makes them look more brutal.
Given what you’re saying, what is a reasonable way to think about the endgame?
There is no reasonable way for this thing to end. There’s only an unreasonable way.
It’s either he ends up taking over Ukraine and then moving his way toward the Baltic countries to challenge us at NATO — or for him to be defeated by Ukraine and then having the Russian people overthrow him because he was the weak guy who couldn’t beat Ukraine.
How do you handicap those two options?
I think each of those options has a 15 percent probability.
What’s the remaining 70 percent probability?
That he and the Ukrainians and all of us are stuck in this low simmer. It’s not going to be at the same level of awfulness that it is right now, but at this low simmering conflict that just goes on and on and on for years.
Do you think oligarchs really have influence over him? Do you think sanctioning them has been effective?
The Russia-Ukraine War and the Global Economy
It’s like a medicine for a certain type of disease. The medicine can have more effect depending on when you administer the medicine. So if we had sanctioned the oligarchs preinvasion and we had done so with our arms locked with our allies, it would have had a much greater effect on his actions than doing it now.
It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be doing it now, but he was betting that there would be no serious sanctions because he’s done a lot of terrible things over the last 20 years and there haven’t been serious sanctions before.
But does Mr. Putin care about what the oligarchs think?
Of him? No.
But it’s extremely important that we do sanction all the oligarchs for a different reason than hoping that the oligarchs are going to overthrow him. The oligarchs are holding his money. So when you see an oligarch worth $20 billion, $10 billion of that is Putin’s. He can’t hold any money in his own name.
So, he’s got to give it to somebody who actually has the financial wherewithal to act — to be a holder of these funds. When we say we want to sanction Putin, the only effective way of doing that is sanctioning the oligarchs. And the reason is neither to get him to change his mind or to get the oligarchs to overthrow him — it is basically to prevent him from using this money to execute this war in the future.
So it’s not that these oligarchs call him and say, “You have to cut this out”?
The oligarchs couldn’t do that. Any oligarch who did that would be immediately arrested, impoverished and killed.
What do you think American companies should be doing? What do you think of those that worry that if they leave they will never be able to come back?
First of all, continuing to do business in Russia after this invasion is the equivalent of continuing to do business in Nazi Germany when Hitler started persecuting the Jews. It’s the same thing.
Every business has a moral obligation to get out of Russia, no matter what the cost is. I don’t think anyone should even be concerned about returning because everyone will be welcomed back in a post-Putin regime. And in a Putin regime, I don’t think anyone should even want to go back.
What about China? What influence does it have at this point?
The one loophole in this whole thing is China, right? China has been very clear that it’s not going to join the rest of the world in challenging or punishing Putin for what he’s doing. I think that China has to be careful.
Why? Doesn’t China still have leverage over the West?
Well, the answer is that the U.S. is probably going to be less likely to sanction China before consumers themselves sanction China.
So, you think consumers will step in to punish China for supporting Russia?
I could easily imagine a movement where every American consumer looks at the label. At the end of the day, consumers, whether organized by the government or not, have as much power as governments do — or more.
Do you think Mr. Putin still has people who are following you?
The way Russia works is that I don’t think he’s spending a lot of time on me, but he gave an order 10 years ago to his government to go after Bill Browder in every way possible. Until the order is rescinded, there are people whose job it is to go after me, no matter what’s going on in the world. And they continue to go after me.
What do you think? Will sanctions against oligarchs pressure Putin to end the war? Let us know: [email protected]