Home | News | A Russia insider warns of a far darker side to Putin

A Russia insider warns of a far darker side to Putin

President Vladimir Putin attends a ceremony of receiving
credentials from foreign ambassadors in the Kremlin in Moscow
Russia, Thursday, March 16, 2017.

Maxim Shipenkov/AP

Russia is in the news every day for its support, overt or covert,
of Donald Trump.

But Bill Browder — who knows Russian President Vladimir Putin up
close and personal — warns of a far darker side to the Kremlin

Browder is the CEO of the investment fund Hermitage Capital
Management and spent years doing business in Russia, until he ran
into legal trouble under the Putin administration.

You might have seen Browder on television commenting on some of
the recent stories out of Russia. Now, in his conversation with
Jeff Schechtman on Radio WhoWhatWhy, he goes deeper into
the internal problems that Putin is facing.

Browder, having witnessed the anger of the Russian people over
the deteriorating conditions in their country, wonders whether
Putin might be ousted by some kind of internal resistance. At the
same time, he notes that Putin adheres to an old Stalinist-era
saying, “No people, no problems.” So far, the Russian strongman
has successfully dispatched his enemies through exile, arrest or

Browder also explains why no amount of wealth will ever be enough
for the rapacious Putin, and why he is so intent on sowing chaos
throughout the world.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin speaks during a meeting dedicated to the Winter Universiade 2019 in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, March 1, 2017. Sputnik/Aleksey Nikolskyi/Kremlin via REUTERS
President Putin attends a meeting on the Winter Universiade 2019
in Krasnoyarsk


Full text transcript:

As a service to our readers, we provide transcripts with our
podcasts. We try to ensure that these transcripts do not include
errors. However, due to a constraint of resources, we are not
always able to proofread them as closely as we would like and
hope that you will excuse any errors that slipped through.

Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to Radio
WhoWhatWhy. I’m Jeff Schechtman.

Not since the darkest days of the Cold War has Russia been so
front and center in the American consciousness. One wonders if
this is the result of just the current president and his
Russia-centric view of the world or if the Russians have actually
done something beyond just hacking that is making us and the
world sit up and take notice. Certainly, Russian diplomats and
citizens turning up dead all over the world and a kleptocracy
producing great wealth for Putin and his oligarchs has also
contributed. But beyond that, what’s really going on? Few
understand today’s Russia better than my guest Bill Browder. Once
one of Russia’s largest foreign investors, he was forced to leave
the country after which his lawyer was jailed and murdered. He
wrote about this in his book Red Notice. Today, Browder
joins us once again to talk Russia and all that’s happened in the
past couple of years. Bill Browder, thanks so much for joining

Bill Browder: Thank you.

Jeff Schechtman: Have we all gone a little crazy
with our obsession with Russia of late or are there really things
happening that we should genuinely be concerned about?

Bill Browder: Well, there’s been stuff that we
should’ve been genuinely concerned about for the last 15 years
while Vladimir Putin has been running Russia and it’s been a slow
catchup from perception to reality. Putin is a different type of
leader than any other head of state in that Putin has been
stealing money hand over fist to the tune of 200 billion dollars
for himself in his presidency. Russia is effectively a mafia
organization in which he’s the capo and the only difference
between this mafia organization and the Colombian mafia or the
Italian mafia is that Vladimir Putin controls thousands of
nuclear warheads.

Jeff Schechtman: Is this all about the money for
Putin? Is there a grander foreign policy vision? Is there a
grander plan for greater Russia or is it really just about the

Bill Browder: Well, it replays with itself.
Putin started out just for the money. So, when he first came into
power, he wanted to get as much money as he could as quickly as
he could. To do so, he had to put a lot of people in jail, he had
a lot of people arrested, he had a lot of people killed. Over the
course of time, he created a lot of enemies and one thing he also
did was, while he was stealing money for himself and the people
around him, the top people in Russia were stealing money as well,
the average Russian was basically getting nothing. If you were a
regular middle class Russian, they don’t have medicine in the
hospitals, the teachers aren’t being paid at the schools, there’s
huge holes in the roads because they’re not filling them. The
country was basically crumbling while Putin and his cronies and
his oligarchs were sailing around on superyachts or flying around
on Boeing business jets and so on and so forth. After a while,
people started to get upset and Putin said to himself, what am I
going to do to make sure these people don’t overthrow me? And so
that’s when he started this whole idea of creating foreign
enemies, invading foreign countries and creating this false
scenario that Russia is being surrounded and potentially invaded
so they need to fight all these enemies. This grand plan of
fighting in Ukraine and fighting in Syria is all a huge
distraction strategy to keep people from turning on Putin and
saying why don’t we have medicine and you’re rich?

Jeff Schechtman: Where does this hacking fit in,
this attempt to influence European elections, American elections,
how does that fit into the grander scheme?

Bill Browder: Well, Putin loves playing in the
shadows. He’s a former secret policeman so he loves playing in
the shadows. What he’s understood very adeptly is that for very
little money, he can go and make mischief all around the world in
a way that nobody can hold him responsible for because he’s doing
it in the shadows. This whole idea of computers and emails and
systems and voting machines all happened so quickly and the
ability to invade, hack, disrupt has also happened very quickly
and while we figured out how to do all this stuff with computers,
we haven’t figured out how to prevent bad guys from breaking in
and so Putin is taking advantage of that right now to do all
sorts of stuff very cheaply. It’s much cheaper to do a hacking
operation than it is to do a military operation. For him, this is
just the perfect asymmetric warfare, asymmetric way of
destabilizing the world. If everybody is worrying about what’s
going on in their home countries, they’re not going to be
worrying about what Russia’s up to in its country and so it
serves Putin’s interest in all different ways for him to be
hacking, disrupting and doing everything he can to make life in
the west more unstable.

Vladimir Putin

Sean Gallup/Getty

Jeff Schechtman: Is there an argument that can
be made that a destabilized west could backfire and have adverse
effects on Russia?

Bill Browder: It’s a very short term benefit to
Putin. Ultimately, if you have a destabilized west, you could end
up having wars in the west and if you have wars in the west, you
could end up having a world war. There’s no way that Russia
wouldn’t get sucked into a world war, it always does, so for him
to be doing all this, it’s really in a very narrow way just
trying to maximize his own personal situation at the expense of
everyone else, including his own country.

Jeff Schechtman: What is your sense of all of
these contacts between members of the current administration and
various Russian officials?

Bill Browder: I’m sure that the Russian
officials have been going around in every different country, not
just America, and looking for receptive people in different
political groups to see where they might be able to have some
influence. Apparently, there were some people in Trump’s campaign
that showed the Russians receptiveness and that’s what seems to
have happened.

Jeff Schechtman: There’s an irony in that in
that it makes it more difficult, arguably the way this has blown
up, the way that it has become such a major issue here that it
makes it more difficult to do any kind of deals or business with
Russia, given the scrutiny over all of this.

Bill Browder: Well, that is the irony. Assuming
that he had the leverage that some people believe he had over
Trump’s camp and watching the celebrations that they were having
in Moscow after Trump was elected, they now have a big hangover
because America does have a very, very strong immune system. The
American system is very strong and when little bits of
information came out which suggested that Russia played a role in
influencing the outcome of the election, the immune system kicked
into gear and I think the immune system has now put the president
in a very uncomfortable situation, having anything to do with
Russia. It’s interesting because if it turns out that there was
no undue influence, let’s just say for arguments sake that Trump
just thought that it would be a good idea to have a friendship
with Putin. He wouldn’t have had a different view than Obama had
and George Bush had. George Bush had a famous saying. He met
Putin in Slovenia at the very beginning of Putin’s presidency and
said: “I looked into his eyes and I saw his soul, and I trust
him.” Obama sent his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton at the
time, with a reset button to say we want to reset relations with
you. Both those guys were able to get away with whatever they
wanted to do with Putin. It doesn’t look like Trump is going to
have that opportunity because the entire American establishment
is surrounding him and saying you can’t do any of that kind of

Jeff Schechtman: After all these years, Russian
diplomats are still dropping dead. What’s going on?

Bill Browder: Well, I don’t want to be a
conspiracy theorist. Having said that, having dealt with the
Russians, there’s a good reason why there are so many
conspiracies because there really are conspiracies. The Russians
kill people for all sorts of reasons and I’ve seen it up close
and personal in the case of Sergei Magnitsky, my lawyer. Sergei
Magnitsky discovered a massive government corruption scheme from
the outside. He wasn’t in the government; he was just my lawyer
and he exposed it and he was killed. One of the Russians who was
part of the corruption scheme became a whistleblower and came to
us with this information about this corruption scheme in London.
And after he gave us the information – and that information was
used to freeze accounts in Switzerland and open up a major money
laundering investigation –

he dropped dead in front of his house in a suburb of London. Then
another guy who was a Russian opposition activist who was
involved in campaigning for sanctions against Russia in the case
of Sergei Magnitsky, my lawyer, this man, his name is Vladimir
Kara-Murza, he was poisoned twice, almost killed twice in Russia.
And so they poison, they kill, they do all sorts of stuff as a
matter of course. This is what they do. They do it for all sorts
of reasons. They do it against their enemies, they even do it
against themselves. When somebody knows too much, when they don’t
want something to leak, when they want to blame somebody for
something that they’ve done. And so people are being killed left,
right and center and they do it generally with poisons, they do
it with car crashes, they do it with fake suicides. They do it
all sorts of different ways to get rid of people. There’s a
famous expression during Stalin’s time, “no person, no problem,”
and that’s how they deal with stuff. They don’t do it with big
bombs and firebombs and machine guns, they do it very subtly in a
way that there’s always some deniability but people do die a lot
who are connected to Russia.

Jeff Schechtman: I mean we recently had the
death of Russia’s UN Ambassador. Is there something more behind
that, do we think?

Bill Browder: I don’t know what he knew, but
generally, if an important person from Russia dies, one should be
suspicious. One should investigate, one shouldn’t assume that
it’s just a natural death just because one would do so if the
Belgian Ambassador of the UN died. It’s a different story when a
Russian dies in these circumstances.

Vladimir Putin
President Vladimir Putin listens to a journalist’s question
during a news conference with Kyrgyzstan President Almazbek
Atambayev, follow their talks in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, Tuesday,
Feb. 28, 2017.

AP Photo/Vladimir

Jeff Schechtman: Given how much money has been
stashed away by Putin and some of his cronies and oligarchs
already, the question always arises, how much is enough?

Bill Browder: What you have to understand is
it’s not just about the money, it’s also about the positon. It’s
different in Russia than it is elsewhere. In America, you can be
the president and not have any money and there can be
billionaires that don’t have any power. But in Russia, if you’re
the boss and you’re the most powerful person in the country, you
also have to be the richest person in the country, at least in
Putin’s mind, that’s how he thinks. He can’t not have the most
money of anybody. Does he need to use it? Probably not. He can
take all the money he wants at any moment in time from the State
to do anything he wants because there are no checks on his power,
but for him it’s more than that. He just needs to have that money
so that he can be richer than everybody else.

Jeff Schechtman: I guess that’s something Donald
Trump emulates in him.

Bill Browder: I think there are way too many
checks and balances in America for any American president to ever
get anywhere near what Putin has done.

Jeff Schechtman: How does all of this continue
to play out, Bill, in your opinion?

Bill Browder: It’s very uncertain how it all
plays out as far as Putin goes. Putin has got a very unstable
situation, which is that Russia is in an economic crisis. People
are getting poorer, people are dying young, there’s no medical
care there, people are dying from drinking tainted alcohol
because they drink bath gels to get drunk, all
sorts of crazy stuff happening in Russia. As a result, people are
grumbling and they’re angry and Putin has successfully created
this image of himself as being a nationalist, he’s looking out
for their interest, he’s fighting foreign enemies. But it’s one
of those things that works up until the point that it doesn’t
work. In other words, at some point in time, people may wake up
and say why are we putting up with this guy who’s stealing
everything, he’s making our lives miserable, I don’t believe a
word he says. If you get enough people saying that at any spur of
the moment, there’s nothing he can do. He could be overthrown by
his people. He could also be overthrown by the people surrounding
him; there could be a palace coup. Or he could end up like the
president of Zimbabwe, Mugabe, who’s been there for 28 years.
It’s really hard to say how it all plays itself out. One thing
that we can say is that it’s a very brittle, very uncertain
situation and the worse things get over there, the more
totalitarian they get. I imagine that Russia is going to more and
more close itself off from the West and become more and more
North Korea-like as Putin desperately holds onto power to make
sure that he doesn’t get overthrown.

Jeff Schechtman: It’s worth noting that Putin
came to power originally under the guise of being a reformer
because there was an element in the country that did want to see
reform, that did want to see change.

Bill Browder: Putin came to power after Boris
Yeltsin. Boris Yeltsin was drunk, he was corrupt, he was fat, he
was just chaotic. Everybody was longing. The Russian oligarchs
controlled half the country; 22 guys controlled half the country
and so everybody was longing for some stability, for some
normalcy, for some reform. In comes this guy, Vladimir Putin,
nobody knows him really. He’s got this totally inscrutable face,
you can’t figure out what he’s thinking because it’s just
absolutely blank, but he doesn’t drink. He goes to work in the
morning and works long days, he’s slim and seems to be effective
and in the first couple of years, he was even doing economic
reforms. So it all seemed good. And everybody thought well, maybe
this is the answer to this chaos before and that he’s going to
tame the oligarchs. He did tame the oligarchs with one objective,
which was to get rid of the 22 oligarchs so he could become the
biggest oligarch himself and so, in the end he didn’t turn out to
be a reformer at all. He turned out to be the biggest crook there

putin netanyahu
President Vladimir Putin, left, welcomes Israeli Prime Minister
Benjamin Netanyahu during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow,
Russia, Tuesday, June 7, 2016.

Pool/Maxim Shipenkov via Associated

Jeff Schechtman: But it does lead one to think
that there is a reform movement, there are people in the country
that do want to see reform that could ostensibly rise up at some

Bill Browder: Putin is doing his damn best to
make sure that doesn’t happen. Anybody who has the ability and
the popularity and the carrot charisma to be a challenge to him
is either exiled, arrested or killed and I know people who fall
into all three categories. There was Gary Kasparov, the famous
chess player who is a political operative and they opened up a
bunch of criminal cases against him. He ended up in exile. You
had Alexei Navalny, who is the top anti-corruption activist in
Russia. If he were to run for president on an honest, open
ticket, he would win. They’ve arrested him, arrested his brother,
put his brother in jail, put him under house arrest and in the
most horrible case is Boris Nemtsov. Boris Nemtsov was the former
Deputy Prime Minister of Russia, very, very charismatic, very
impressive guy, been around forever, beloved in the West by all
the Western politicians, a real reformer and they just shot him
dead on the bridge in front of the Kremlin with a 150 video
cameras all watching the whole thing and they happened to be
turned off the moment he got shot.

Jeff Schechtman: What is the best way in your
view, for the rest of the world, for the west to deal with Russia
at this point?

Bill Browder: I don’t think it’s our place to
overthrow him or not. It’s not our place and it’s not our ability
to do that. What the West needs to do is understand that this man
is an international menace, he intends nothing but bad things to
happen to us in the West. It’s been proven that that’s how he is
and so we need to contain him. This is a different type of Cold
War situation, but one where we can’t let him make another
further move in the West. And we have to stop all the stuff that
he’s doing, which means we need a very strong military presence
on NATO countries on the border. And we need to be doing big, big
investigations into the money laundering of Russians in the
Western banking system. And we need to freeze the assets of the
oligarchs and ban their travel for the ones who are managing
Putin’s money, which is a lot of them. If we did that stuff, we
would completely clip his wings and he wouldn’t become an
international menace, he would stop doing what he’s doing because
the West is infinitely more powerful than him if we worked

Jeff Schechtman: I guess the question is what he
might do in response.

Bill Browder: Well, he’s going to huff and puff
and threaten to blow our house down, but we’re not talking about
starting a war with Russia, we’re just saying you can’t take
another step further. Don’t. We will react if you do.

Jeff Schechtman: Bill Browder, thank you so much
for spending time with us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy.

Bill Browder: Thank you.

Jeff Schechtman: Thank you very much. Thank you
for listening and joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I
hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy
podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman.

If you liked this podcast, please feel free to share and help
others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also
support this podcast and all the work we do by going to WhoWhatWhy.org /donate .

Read the original article on WhoWhatWhy . Copyright 2017. Follow WhoWhatWhy on Twitter .

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