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'Freezing Order' is the true story of money laundering, murder and Putin's wrath

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

President George W. Bush once said he looked Vladimir Putin in the eye and found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. President Barack Obama called for a reset of relations with Russia. Bill Browder, the American-British financier, also thought he could have a fruitful relationship with Vladimir Putin. But after his Russian lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, was beaten to death in a Russian jail in 2009, he has dedicated his life to seeking justice for Putin's crimes. He has a new book, "Freezing Order: A True Story Of Money Laundering, Murder And Surviving Vladimir Putin's Wrath." Bill Browder joins us. Mr. Browder, thanks so much for being with us.

BILL BROWDER: Good to be here.

SIMON: I have to ask, how are you still with us, given the history Vladimir Putin has of how he settled scores with adversaries?

BROWDER: Well, he's definitely wanted to kill me. He's threatened me with death, with kidnapping. There have been eight Interpol arrest warrants issued for me. I was even arrested in Madrid a couple of years ago. The reason that I'm still here is that in the midst of all this, Putin was always keeping one foot in the civilized world and one foot in the criminal world. He wanted to be going to the G-20 conference. He wanted to be hosting international sports events and so on. And even though he was actively plotting assassinations, including my own, the - I guess at some point he decided that killing me would probably hurt his chances of being in that civilized world. And so he didn't do anything outrageous during that period of time. Now he's got both feet in the criminal world by launching this unbelievable murderous invasion of Ukraine. And so my own personal risk has gone up exponentially.

SIMON: You see the Magnitsky Act - that's a bipartisan bill that passed in 2012, freezes the assets of Russian officials who figured into the death of Sergei Magnitsky - as central to almost everything we're seeing now. How so?

BROWDER: Well, so the Magnitsky Act - it, of course, doesn't just apply to Sergei Magnitsky's killers. It applies to all Russian human rights violators, and actually all human rights violators around the world, for that matter. It's now - it started in the United States, and it now exists in Canada, the U.K., the EU, Australia. In fact, 34 countries have it.

SIMON: Thanks in part to your continuing campaigning for it, but please.

BROWDER: Indeed. But the - Putin hates this - hated it because this potentially puts his own personal fortune at risk, which is an enormous fortune. I estimate it's well north $200 billion. And he tried to stop it in every way possible, even interfered - he interfered in the U.S. election in 2016, sent his own people to Trump Tower to try to repeal it - all sorts of crazy things. And now this is the template which is being used to go after his money and the oligarchs' money and all these people who have had their assets frozen and their yachts seized. This is - this all started with the murder of Sergei Magnitsky and the response to that murder, which - I mean, I could have never imagined that the death of my lawyer would have led to the policy which is one of the main policies to fight back against this terrible stuff that's going on right now.

SIMON: Forgive me if this sounds facile, but are you saying following - are you saying follow the blood and money?

BROWDER: Indeed. Blood money has led to all this stuff, basically. Putin - if you were to ask me why Putin is invading Ukraine, it's because he has stolen so much money that he's afraid of the Russian people rising up, and he needed a distraction. Remember wag the dog? - this - you know, start a war. And that's what - I don't believe this is about NATO or the EU and Ukraine joining up. This is about Putin being desperately afraid of his own people. And he started this war, and he - this is not the first time he's started a war. He starts wars when he thinks he's flagging in his approval of the Russian people.

SIMON: Are you concerned about popular opinion in Western democracies calling for their governments to scale back for support for Ukraine as energy prices rise, which increases the cost of just about everything?

BROWDER: Well, I think that that will probably happen. But at the same time - and I've seen this so many times before - Vladimir Putin will commit another atrocity, which will make it almost impossible for anyone to say that. He just continues to escalate, to do more terrible things. And in the moment that we're starting to feel like, God, it's getting expensive to do stuff; you know, maybe this is not so good. you know, we'll see 100,000 dead and some terrible, unbelievable thing we've never could imagine anyone doing. And that's kind of how Putin operates. And so he's not trying - he's playing this game for his own domestic audience. And his own domestic audience needs to see brutal strength. And at the moment, he's showing weakness. And so I think that whatever we're feeling right now and whatever some people may be upset about, inflation, we're all watching this stuff on TV every day, and it's too heartbreaking and painful to watch.

SIMON: Mr. Browder, I have to ask you almost an unfathomable question, but given the amount of time and perspective you've devoted to trying to figure out Vladimir Putin, do you worry about a nuclear attack?

BROWDER: I don't just worry about it. I think it's probable. Now, who he attacks and what he does with that is another question. But we have to understand that Vladimir Putin is a man who is a criminal. He knows no boundaries. He has no moral compass. He's effectively a person who will do anything for his own personal, financial and survival interests. And if he sees the use of a nuclear weapon - probably a tactical nuclear weapon - as something that will reframe this conflict for him, I think it's entirely likely and even probable that he uses one. And I'm not the only one who thinks this. The president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, has said the same thing.

SIMON: And how does the West respond?

BROWDER: Well, I think that we have to basically create a total, absolute barrier against this guy. We have to completely isolate him economically, and we have to provide the Ukrainians with every possibility of countering whatever is happening to them. And we haven't done enough yet. There's still more oligarchs to be sanctioned. There's still oil being bought by - I mean, the Europeans are sending a billion dollars a day to Putin every day to kill Ukrainians by buying their oil and gas. We've got to stop that. And we have to give the Ukrainians every bit of support they need militarily, and up to and including a no-fly zone. Many people don't like me saying that, but that's the truth.

SIMON: The concern is that would provoke a Russian military response, right?

BROWDER: Well, we already have a Russian military response. I mean, we've been involved in Libya and in Bosnia with no-fly zones where Russia was nearby. This is - I mean, there's absolutely no justification for him invading Ukraine, and it's totally reasonable to do that. But that's a longer conversation. But I do believe that we have to show Putin strength, and this business of saying, you know, we don't want to have a military confrontation with you - we already have a military confrontation. We're already involved. We're already giving them huge amounts of weapons.

SIMON: Bill Browder - new book, "Freezing Order" - thanks so much for being with us.

BROWDER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.