EUvsDisinfo in conversation with Bill Browder
Activist, author, and Kremlin-designated ‘threat to Russia’s national security’, Bill Browder has been advocating for governments around the world to impose sanctions on human rights abusers and corrupt officials. On 3 March 2023, he joined EUvsDisinfo in a Twitter Space to talk about Russian disinformation, how the global perception of Russia has changed since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, what it takes to keep up the fight against corruption and abuse, and how to hold Russia accountable. If you want to listen to the interview, you can do so here. We also publish a transcript of the conversation below.
EUvsDisinfo: Could you give us an example of when you had to face a disinformation campaign directed at you – how did it happen and what was your response?
Bill Browder: Well, I mean, I face a disinformation campaign, which is happening as we speak, every minute of every day. There is something going on from Russia. They have, as you probably know, this troll factory in St Petersburg. And I would imagine that there is like a whole floor or corner devoted to causing trouble for me.
So what kind of things do they do? This is an interesting experiment. I encourage any of you to do it just for fun. You put out a tweet saying Bill Browder is so good. And then watch your timeline fill up with all these trolls coming out of nowhere, all saying Bill Browder is a criminal. Bill Browder raped Russia. He is a terrible man. He is a convicted convict, blah, blah. And this goes on and on every day. And it’s very interesting because there are certain times when it’s not happening. I guess there are certain working hours at the troll factory and certain hours when they are not working. My timeline can be normal except when the troll factory is at work and when they have their assignments to do. It is also very interesting because on certain issues they are more precise than on other issues.
For example, one of my big projects recently has been to advocate for the seizing of the $350 billion of Russian Central Bank reserves, which have been frozen. This is, of course, a really sensitive topic for the Kremlin.
So you’ll have all sorts of stuff on my timeline about that. It is an ongoing process, of course. This is just one of many things. They have made movies about me. They have hired public relations firms in London and in New York to go around and pitch nasty articles about me. They have government officials make public statements about me. It is all basically an effort to try to reduce my credibility in the eyes of Western parliaments and governments so that my advocacy work against Putin doesn’t succeed.
EUvsDisinfo: Maybe you can also elaborate a little bit about what you did in response to those disinformation campaigns that were targeting you directly? And how did it affect you? How did you deal with that?
Bill Browder: Let’s take the movie they did. Back in 2016, there was a guy named Andrei Nekrasov. He had a history of being a documentary filmmaker that made movies critical of Putin. He apparently had been effectively on the payroll of Boris Berezovsky, who had been anti-Putin.
And Nekrasov had made maybe three or four movies that were highly critical of Putin. And he was also the boyfriend of a member of the European Parliament, a woman who was head of the Subcommittee on Human Rights in the European Parliament.
She said that I should meet her boyfriend. He is a moviemaker. He can make a really good movie about Sergei Magnitsky and so on and so forth. I thought this guy is fully vouched for because of his connection with the MEP Heidi Hautala and he has this great track record of making very powerful anti-Putin movies. So we started to work with him and the first three interviews were all pretty legit, all about the murder of Sergei Magnitsky and so on. But then for the fourth interview he basically starts interviewing me as if he is an FSB officer with the full FSB spin on all of my activities.
I was confused and a bit shocked by the questions he was asking on camera. And I asked where is this coming from? This is pretty odd. If you’re making a movie using this narrative, it’s going to blow back on you.
I stopped the interview and then about a year and a half later, I get a call from somebody at the European Parliament who said, Do you realize that there is a movie that is about to be shown in the European Parliament hosted by Heidi Hautala, which is going to attack your credibility and Sergei Magnitsky’s credibility?
It is going to say that Sergei Magnitsky wasn’t murdered, that he died of natural causes, that he and you are fraudsters, that your whole campaign is just a smokescreen to cover up your own illegal activities in Russia.
I was amazed and shocked by the whole thing. I didn’t have much time to prepare a response to it. If somebody makes a one-hour movie, you need to make a one-hour response. Normally, in these types of situations, I can put a PowerPoint together or something like that but he had a full movie. So in this particular case, we wrote to the European Parliament, we wrote to the producers of the movie and gave them all the information they would need to dispute all this nonsense that he [Nekrasov] is saying. Sergei Magnitsky’s family wrote to all these people. In the end, the European Parliament dropped it at the very last minute.
Interestingly, some of the people who were in the movie were actual criminals involved in persecuting Sergei Magnitsky before he died. They had actually showed up at the European Parliament to be a part of this whole masquerade.
In the end, it was not shown at the European Parliament. They then tried to show it at the Newseum in Washington, which is the Museum of Free Speech. And when we tried to get it shut down there, they pushed back very hard and they ended up showing it. And interestingly, I probably shouldn’t have been so concerned about it because when all the audience came, consisting of all sorts of Russians, Russian dissidents and people who knew the story very well, they took matters into their own hands. At the end of the movie, there was massive booing and when the discussion took place, there was a full attack on Nekrasov and the whole thing blew up in his face.
But it was all pretty upsetting to me. First and foremost, because they were defaming Sergei Magnitsky, who was a hero and a victim. To try to make him into a culprit was really pretty awful.
It was just so cynical and so evil and so much was invested in this whole thing. They spent a lot of money on the movie and a lot of money promoting it. They got a big PR firm and a lobbying firm in Washington to assist them.
It was all just really unbelievable that this was basically a Russian government operation, taking place in Washington and in Brussels.
EUvsDisinfo: I would like to continue a little bit on the topic of disinformation. Obviously, you have a lot of personal experience of this. You have been talking about these issues for many, many years. I think you will agree with us that we do see an increased awareness of Russian disinformation now.
But do you think that we are more resilient now than we were a few years ago? And if you agree that we are, do you think this awareness will stay with us? Or will there be some changes in the coming years?
Bill Browder: Well, it’s hard to say whether we are more resilient or not. Twitter had put up various guardrails to protect from all this stuff. Then Twitter got taken over by Elon Musk and he is taking those guardrails down.
It used to be that you knew who was a legitimate person and who was not, based on the blue checkmarks next to their name.
If someone had a blue checkmark, you knew that they were a journalist or a government official, a corporate executive or someone real and verified. And now, all of a sudden anyone could pay eight dollars for a checkmark and those people can put out all sorts of nonsense. It’s all very confusing – who’s saying what and who’s not saying what, and so on.
Twitter in a certain sense has become worse since Elon Musk took over. Having said that, at the same time, I think everybody now understands that, you know, Russia is effectively a criminal regime and Putin is a mass murderer. So anything that comes out of Russia is suspect.
Which is good for anything official that comes out of Russia, but then you have all these intermediaries spouting their nonsense, which is not official Russian stuff. How do you categorize a statement from Tucker Carlson or Marjorie Taylor Greene who are all parroting the same stuff? What is their motivation? Are they doing it for their own political reasons? Or do they have some kind of background connected to the Russian government?
It’s all very strange and unhelpful. I was on a show the other night in the UK. Piers Morgan, who’s a big commentator talk show guy, had me on his show to talk about tanks. This was when the Germans were hesitating on supplying tanks to Ukraine and I was on the show to talk about tanks for Ukraine.
Piers Morgan was also very much on the side of giving the tanks to Ukraine. And then they got a woman to be the debater on the other side. Her name was Tomi Lahren. She comes from Fox News. She got on the show and said that we should not give anything to Ukraine, no tanks for Ukraine. Why are we worrying about the Ukrainian border when we have to worry about the [US] southern border?
She made it appear as if she represented large swathes of American voters, which isn’t true. Americans don’t particularly not want to supply tanks to Ukraine. But how does anyone verify who does she represent? Why is she saying this? How many people are behind her?
From my perspective, and I think I’ve done enough work to know this, she represents this fringe of the far right of the Republican Party that doesn’t have any particular widespread following at all.
But if she continues to repeat this over and over again on Fox News and any other station that takes her, saying: I’m speaking on behalf of families and housewives in America that don’t want this money to be spent in Ukraine, some people might actually think that’s what a lot of people in America think. And if they think that, then it becomes part of the political landscape that might have not otherwise been there.
EUvsDisinfo: How do you think we should deal with it when we hear these kind of Russian talking points coming from someone else, not necessarily official Russian sources? Coming from someone where you might not know who is behind it. How can we deal with that?
Bill Browder: Well, I think it’s not easy.
When we were fighting on the Magnitsky stuff, it was in a certain way easier because we knew who the characters were. There weren’t that many of them. We could then do research into their backgrounds. We could expose who they were, what their connections were. Sometimes data leaked about them, which put them in a negative light and so on.
We’re at war. There is a physical war going on and there is an information war that’s going on. And for the people who are issuing false information, we need to dedicate resources to discovering, outing, exposing these people. It requires resources. We can’t just sit back and accept it. We have to really look hard.
Somebody should do an investigation into what are the finances of Tomi Lahren and why is she saying all these Russian talking points when she lives in Tennessee? Where does she come up with this stuff? I’d like to know. I think a lot of people would like to know.
EUvsDisinfo: There is a fantastic study by a Ukrainian organization called Texty that is investigating organizations promoting ‘Russkiy Mir’ all across Europe. It’s publicly available online.
What we are witnessing right now, in terms of disinformation and information manipulation, is something that Russia has had in its playbook for a really long time – using topics that are already there in the public discussion. For example, the narrative about peace is one of the most spread these days. So, in theory, we all want peace, of course, right? We prefer peace over war. But when Russia says peace it actually means a lack of territorial integrity for Ukraine, lack of sovereignty for Ukraine.
Bill Browder: It is indeed. Thank you for bringing that up. It’s infuriating. If you describe it in a real way, what they want is 150 more Buchas. Any time Russia takes over a part of Ukraine, they dig shallow graves and tie people’s hands behind their backs and shoot them in the head if they’re men and then rape them if they’re women and then kill them. And for these people to say, ‘We want peace’, is to say that we want the mutilation and rape of innocent Ukrainians. That’s the translation.
EUvsDisinfo: Last week you joined Russians protesting in London against Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. You’ve known Russia inside and out for a very long time. What would you say is the role of disinformation in Russia, in Russian society right now? Do you see a shift compared to several years ago, ten years ago, more even? What has changed with the war?
Bill Browder: I was at this demonstration in London last weekend, which was organized by the Russian opposition, in front of the Russian embassy. And it was really well attended. There was, I think, seven or eight hundred people there, which was a lot of people, for Russians to stand up in front of the embassy.
And the Russians that were there were just as fully educated about the atrocities as anybody. They were more strident than anybody I’ve ever heard. They were calling Putin a mass murderer, calling him a war criminal, demanding the withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine, and so on. These people were all well versed, well educated, and their hearts were in the exact right place.
But it’s so strange to see then these interviews on Twitter or television where they go out and they start speaking to people in Moscow who are all frothing at the mouth with anger towards Ukrainians when the Ukrainians have done nothing. I don’t know whether that represents a large portion of Russian society or not, I’d like to think not. But you read the surveys that say that 80% of the people support the war in Ukraine.
I’ve also had an interesting interaction with some Russian journalists. I was interviewed today by a famous Russian journalist who wanted to probe me about sanctions. The big question was – do you think it’s fair that average Russians are under sanctions?
And I said, I think it’s really a low priority issue to worry about whether Russian people feel it’s fair to be under sanctions when Ukrainians are being mutilated and bombed and killed on a daily basis. 9/11 type of terrorism is taking place daily in Ukraine.
If someone can’t use their iPhone, it’s hardly something I care about. It was really interesting how emphatic this journalist was that most Russians don’t like what’s going on, but they don’t want to get put in jail and they just want to keep their heads down.
But my point was that you have to take sides here. You can’t just hope that your life is going to be normal when such an atrocity is being perpetrated on a neighbouring country in your country’s name and you’re not standing up to the leader of your country.
It is really interesting and complicated to try to understand what creates public opinion in Russia. I really don’t understand it anymore because it’s all so weird, feverish, full of misinformation.
EUvsDisinfo: We would also like to hear your opinion about accountability. There are a lot of talks about having an international tribunal and making Russia pay for this war. But there’s also the financial side. You have been advocating for seizing Russian assets. Could you talk a little bit more about how best to do that? How do you see it realistically being done?
Bill Browder: First of all, there are two huge conditions for how this thing has to end. The first condition is that Russia has to withdraw from all territory that was taken illegally, not just on February 24th, but coming back to 2014. The second is that Russia has to take responsibility for the crimes that were committed and the damage that was done.
That means that individuals have to face trial for crimes against humanity, war crimes, genocide and other atrocities. The country has to take responsibility for the crime of aggression, and they have to pay reparations equal to the damages that were done.
These are very ambitious targets that Putin is obviously pushing back very hard on. But these are the conditions. The only conditions in which things could ever normalize with Russia.
It means that in the short term, we need to start coming up with these mechanisms. We need to come up with the war crimes prosecutions. We need to come up with the special tribunal to try Putin and the Russian state for the crime of aggression. These things are being worked on by some very important and good lawyers, and I think progress will be made.
On the financial side, and this is something that’s a big priority for me and something that I’m working on very hard, we’ve been able to calculate $1.2 trillion of damages that was done to the Ukrainian economy.
Since the first week of the war, we have frozen 350 billion dollars of Russian Central Bank reserves.
It seems to me to be entirely morally right, financially right, and politically right that we need to put together a mechanism not just to have frozen these 350 billion dollars, but to seize it and to use it for the defence and reconstruction of Ukraine.
This idea has a lot of popularity among the financial circles, and it’s extremely unpopular among what I would call the bureaucratic diplomatic circles. Most bureaucrats and diplomats in foreign countries shudder at the idea that one can just confiscate the money of Russia. They don’t like it, not because they like Russia, but because it’s never been done before.
Oftentimes countries will pay reparations after they’ve been defeated. But it’s rare or unheard of that it happens before the end of the war.
But, in this case, I think it needs to be done before the end of the war, because then as time goes on, this war becomes more and more expensive. And as time goes on, less people will want to pay for it.
It comes down to the concept of sovereign immunity. Russia’s Central Bank reserves, at the moment, are protected by sovereign immunity. It means that in the same way as the Russian Embassy in London is sovereign territory, the Russian Central Bank reserves in the Bank of England are also sovereign property and can’t be touched.
Putin is going out and committing horrific crimes, mass murder of Ukrainian civilians, and then sitting back and saying you can’t touch my money because it’s protected by sovereign immunity. It seems to me that if he is redefining international crime, we have to then redefine international law.
My proposal, which I’m trying to gain momentum on, is to have the laws in a number of important G7 countries amended so that sovereign immunity is generally sacrosanct, except when a country has been found guilty for committing the crime of aggression. In that case, the damages that were created by the crime of aggression should not be protected by sovereign immunity. Therefore, the Russian Central Bank reserves could be seized on that basis.
Some people say that this is an impossible task, but these were the same people who were saying that getting the Magnitsky Act passed was an impossible task. We have now got the Magnitsky Act passed in 35 countries.
So this is my big project, and I think, next to the weapons for Ukraine, money for Ukraine is probably the next most important thing.
EUvsDisinfo: Very inspiring to hear that things might sound like they’re impossible, but let’s work to try to do them anyway. I want to ask you one more question. Given the history of the relations between the EU, the so-called West, and Russia, what could we have done differently in the past to try to limit the situation that we have today? What can we learn from those mistakes that we have made?
Bill Browder: It’s very straightforward. We just gave Russia and Putin a free pass for 22 years. He invaded Georgia. We didn’t do anything. He took Crimea. We didn’t do anything. He carpet-bombed Aleppo. We didn’t do anything. He sent assassins to kill Sergei Skripal. We didn’t do anything. And so he’s had the impression that we’re all so narrowly focussed on our own financial interests that we’re just not going do anything. Every time anyone does any major action, they look at the benefits and the costs. Putin saw huge political benefits for invading Ukraine and he thought that the costs would be much less.
If we had done something differently in the past, if we had imposed the type of crippling sanctions we’ve imposed now, after Russia annexed Crimea or after Aleppo, Putin might have had a different calculation about what he was going to do on February 24th last year.
I think that the lesson is that appeasement just ends up costing you much, much more in the long run. This is really an important lesson for China. It’s also a lesson for how we go forward with Putin.
There are these ideas about a ceasefire and negotiating, but anything other than a total expulsion from Ukraine will be seen by Putin as a reward for what he’s done. If he has that reward, he will just keep on trying to do it again.
The only option with Vladimir Putin is to be absolutely tough, strident and totally uncompromising in this situation, because he doesn’t understand anything other than a boot on the throat.
EUvsDisinfo: To conclude, I would like to go back to your personal experience and just ask you, how do you motivate yourself to keep fighting the good fight? How do we all keep the fight for Ukraine’s freedom and ours alive?
Bill Browder: The motivation for me was the tragic, horrible guilt that I felt for the murder of Sergei Magnitsky. He was killed because he worked for me. He was killed because he effectively was my proxy, and he died at the age of 37. He would have had another 50 years of life with his family. Every day that I think about that, from 13 years ago until today, it both breaks my heart and infuriates me and it drives me to do whatever I need to do to keep on fighting for justice.
He was one victim. We were one set of victims. And now that has been multiplied by hundreds of thousands with the war in Ukraine. I think that it’s very easy to be motivated when you watch this war in Ukraine and you understand the evil of the whole thing and the terrible, terrible injustice of regular people just being mutilated by these bombs and by the attacks. It’s very easy not to lose one’s motivation here because it’s just so infuriating and so unjust.