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“Russian money has completely corrupted the British establishment”: Bill Browder on the Kremlin’s influence over Brexit and a Russia without Putin

The US investor and prominent anti-Putin activist is gloomy about the likelihood of ousting the dictator

American-born British financier and political activist Bill Browder poses for pictures in front of 10 Downing street. Photo: TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images

Hamas launched its deadly attack against Israel on Vladimir Putin’s birthday. “The Hamas terror campaign in Israel is a huge win for Putin,” Bill Browder told me. “Not only has the press completely sidelined his murderous war in Ukraine as they focus on Israel, but now he’s seeing his oil revenue increase which is the main way he’s funding his war.”

Browder is a financier, author and prominent anti-Putin critic who has spent much of the last two decades exposing corruption in Russia, having been deported by the regime in 2005 after introducing foreign investment to the post-Soviet country. He says there is now “no question” that Russia and Iran are firm partners in creating chaos – Iran is the backer of Hezbollah, which has close links to Hamas. Israel’s relationship with the US is bad news for Putin in the region and when it comes to ways to stir the pot, nothing is off the table. Simply put, “the worse things get in the world, the better it is for Putin.”

In 2009, Browder’s anti-corruption mission went from political to personal when his friend Sergei Magnitsky, a Moscow lawyer, was tortured and killed in a Russian jail after uncovering a vast tax evasion scheme. Browder sought punitive justice that culminated in the Magnitsky Act. Passed in the US Congress in 2012, the legislation freezes assets and bans the visas of human rights abusers and kleptocrats in both Russia and around the world. Browder’s anti-corruption campaign went global and eventually, it reached Londongrad. 

“Over the last 23 years, Russian money completely corrupted the British establishment,” says Browder. From lawyers to bankers, he explains, there are a variety of sectors that profited off Russian money and, while this isn’t a large proportion of Britain’s population, the beneficiaries in question were highly influential, many of them connected to the political class. 

“You have members of the House of Lords who are on the payroll of Russia, you have people who have left parliament to go on the payroll of Russia and you have people who have left government to do so,” Browder says, citing no names. When Browder refers to the payroll of Russia, he means that of the oligarchs who act as proxies for the Kremlin. 

“On top of that, you have this golden visa scheme which allowed Russians to come into the UK, spend five years as residents and then become citizens,” Browder adds. Launched in 2008, the “golden visa” system offered wealthy foreign investors a fast track route to living in the UK. The more money applicants planned to invest in the UK, the shorter their waiting time for being granted indefinite leave to remain was: £2m took five years, whereas investing £10m shortened the time to two. The scheme was axed last February by then-home secretary Priti Patel amid concerns that dirty money would become rife around UK cities. It was too little too late.

“These individuals then began to make sizable donations to lots of political parties, most notoriously the Conservatives. The party took a large amount of Russian money from a woman whose husband was the deputy finance minister,” Browder says. In the last three months of 2021, the Conservatives accepted £80,250 from ex-Russian banker Lubov Chernukhin, according to figures released by the Electoral Commission. She was married to Vladimir Chernukhin, deputy finance minister under Putin and chairman of the Russian state development corporation, VEB.RF. In March 2022, the company faced UK sanctions after Russian military forces invaded Ukraine. 

And then of course, there’s Brexit. In July 2020, the long-delayed Russia report published by the parliament’s intelligence and security committee presented a damning conclusion. While it stated it was “difficult – if not impossible” to assess the impact of Russia’s alleged attempts to influence the 2016 EU referendum, it found that ministers had effectively turned a blind eye to allegations of Russian interference and failed to investigate claims. 

“There is nothing more attractive to Putin than the breakdown of the EU,” says Browder. “He doesn’t like to be told how to act, particularly by large and powerful countries such as America. But, he also dislikes smaller nations that band together to have a bigger voice, like the EU,” he explains, adding that Putin’s displeasure also extends to NATO which also amplifies the influence of smaller countries. 

“In his perfect world, he wants to split up these groups. Since Britain was one of the most important members of the EU, its departure from the bloc was a major win for him and so while there were people who wanted Brexit for their own reasons in the UK, Putin wanted Brexit as well, but for different reasons. He was ready to stir up the pot and put more resources into pro-Brexit campaigning to achieve this,” says Browder. 

In Browder’s view, Putin has two objectives; to keep his money and to stay in power, fail at either and he dies. The need to hold onto both created his motivation for starting the war in Ukraine. “He’d stolen too much money. Since coming to power, Putin and his inner circle have stolen one trillion dollars from the Russian state and it’s like spreading gasoline all over the ground and waiting for it to light up. If it had gone up he would have lost power. 

“He had also come to a point where creating a foreign enemy could allow the Russian people to direct their anger elsewhere. Then from 2014, he broadcast this message every day 24/7 to mould Ukraine into a public enemy and make everyone angry at Ukrainians.” Whipping up the country into a nationalistic frenzy became Putin’s “modus operandi”.

“It’s Machiavelli 101,” adds Browder, and Putin is far from a beginner in that class. “He did this in Georgia in 2008 and, six years later, when he seized Crimea. In Syria, half a million people have died and then, of course, we don’t even talk about the Russians who are suffering under Putin’s rule. Every time he’s feeling insecure, he embarks on some sort of military adventure and that gets people rooting for the home team.”

It’s hard to envision a world without a man who has slowly but surely become the global pariah – except, when Putin creates the circumstances for his own downfall. The Wagner Group’s attempted coup in June, prompting 24 hours that shook Russia to its core, was one such occasion. “Prigozhin’s march on Moscow was the result of Putin pushing people too hard. Too many have died in Ukraine. Only, he handled that. He killed Prigozhin. At the moment, the base case scenario is that Putin stays. Nonetheless, the way to dispose of Putin is to give the Ukrainians what they need to best the Russian army.”

And if Ukraine were to win and Putin were to fall, what then? 

“There is a 10 to 15 per cent chance that someone Alexei Navalny or Vladimir Kara-Murza would lead Russia out of the situation,” says Browder. “Russian people themselves – in the absence of propaganda – want to have normal lives and freedom just like the rest of us. It just doesn’t work out that way when you live under a dictatorship. There is a desire to have normal leaders, democracy and all this entails – there may be very little evidence of that in the last 100 years in Russia but this doesn’t make it impossible.

“The other thing is,” Browder adds, “whoever would succeed Putin would not continue this war. Instead, they would want to feather their nest the way Putin feathered his. They’d stop the war, make some deals and sanctions would be eased so they, in turn, could make their own money. Now, this isn’t good news for Russians but it is for the rest of the world.”

Nearly 20,000 people have faced police detention for their participation in anti-war protests since the beginning of the invasion. Among them is Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Russian-British opposition politician and journalist who joined Browder on the Magnitsky campaign, and his testimony has been instrumental in seeing the act passed in 35 countries. After being arrested in 2022, this year Moscow’s First General Court of Appeals finalised Kara-Murza’s 25-year sentence. It was a level of political persecution not seen since Stalin.

Last month, on his birthday, Kara-Murza was abruptly moved to Omsk, Siberia. The basic level of access Browder and Kara-Murza’s lawyer had to him disappeared, removing the ability to physically assess his well-being and pass handwritten articles to The Washington Post. “What I can say is that his condition is generally not good. He’s lost a quarter of his body weight and he suffers from the after-effects of the assassination attempts made on his life in 2015 and then again in 2017 with some sort of nerve agent,” says Browder. This left Kara-Murza with polyneuropathy, peripheral nerve damage which ordinarily begins with the feet which is now spreading to the left side of his entire body.

Despite his dual citizenship, when Kara-Murza was first arrested Browder was disappointed by the response from the British government. “In Canada, they made him an honorary citizen so they could take up this case. In America, we got 83 members of Congress to write a letter to the State Department to be more robust. All the way through, Britain was lagging, not leading.” 

That being said, Britain has gone from being “totally negligent” to “publicly concerned” but it wasn’t a swift process. “Rishi Sunak mentioned Evan Gershkovich [the imprisoned Wall St Journal reporter] long before he mentioned Vladimir. Britain isn’t totally asleep at the wheel but I would expect them to be leading in terms of figuring out an appropriate prisoner swap for Vladimir,” says Browder.

Next year will mark the 15th anniversary of Magnitsky’s death. Magnitsky believed that the rule of law existed in Russia and died because of this utopian belief. “The great hope for Russia is that the Ukrainians win the war,” Browder says. Following this, he says, the country will rise up, leading to Putin’s collapse. “This vast crowd will then travel to the jail where Vladimir is being held, bring him out on their shoulders and take him to the Kremlin where he, Alexei Navalny and Ilya Yashin form a democratic government and begin to organise reparations to the Ukrainians, elections and jail sentences for the criminals that have occupied the country for the last 23 years.”

There’s a momentary pause. “Is there any chance of this happening?” I ask. “Ten per cent – 90 per cent it doesn’t.”

The day we speak, Browder is due to lead a panel on activism burnout at the One Young World summit in Belfast, the platform for young leaders’ annual conference that brings together young activists from across the globe. It’s an idea that has parallels to the closing chapter of his book Red Notice, Browder’s documentation of his fight for justice for Magnitsky. In an anecdote, a friend pulls him to one side at a social gathering, quizzing him on why he persists with his anti-corruption campaigning. In other words, wasn’t it time for a quiet life?

“Psychologically, I have survived because I don’t look at end goals. On the outside of my life looking in, people often think ‘Oh god, what a nightmare!’ But, I wake up every morning happy,” he laughs. The key to this happiness, Browder says, is simple; do three things a day to harm his enemy. It’s not quite the doctor’s advice of an apple a day – but such is life for Putin’s public enemy No. 1.

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