Rosie Gray’s article in the July 25 Atlantic, “Bill Browder’s Testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee” is a must read to make sense of the motivations underlying Trump Russia. They reveal a corrupt Vladimir Putin uncomfortably in the sights of the Magnitsky Act passed by Congress in 2012 and willing to risk Russian capital to see it killed.
Bill Browder founded and ran a large capital investment firm in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union. When Browder, as now seems inevitable, ran afoul of the corrupt oligarchs that were looting the government, he initially turned successfully to Vladimir Putin for protection. Yet, when Browder and his lawyer Sergei Magnitsky turned up evidence of corruption that ultimately benefited Putin, Browder became persona non gratis in Russia and Magnitsky was detained under allegations of corruption, was abused, and ultimately died in Russian prison. In 2012, the United States Congress sanctioned the involved Russian Oligarchs with the Magnitsky Act, an act that has proved painful to the Russians, and which Putin has gone to great lengths to quash. The meeting between Donald, Jr., Kushner, and Manafort with the Russians concerned making a deal to lift those sanctions. Rosie Gray’s article and Browder’s testimony put flesh on these bare bones and are necessary to understand the breadth and nature of the corruption.
This is from Rosie Gray’s introduction in the Atlantic, “Natalia Veselnitskaya, the Russian lawyer who secured a meeting with Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort, was engaged in a campaign for the repeal of the Magnitsky Act, and raised the subject of adoptions in that meeting. That’s put the spotlight back on Browder’s long campaign for Kremlin accountability, and against corruption—a campaign whose success has irritated Putin and those around him.”
Here’s Browder concerning when difficulties with Putin began: “[Assistance from Putin] all changed in July 2003, when Putin arrested Russia’s biggest oligarch and richest man, Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Putin grabbed Khodorkovsky off his private jet, took him back to Moscow, put him on trial, and allowed television cameras to film Khodorkovsky sitting in a cage right in the middle of the courtroom. That image was extremely powerful, because none of the other oligarchs wanted to be in the same position. After Khodorkovsky’s conviction, the other oligarchs went to Putin and asked him what they needed to do to avoid sitting in the same cage as Khodorkovsky. From what followed, it appeared that Putin’s answer was, ‘Fifty percent.’ He wasn’t saying 50 percent for the Russian government or the presidential administration of Russia, but 50 percent for Vladimir Putin personally. From that moment on, Putin became the biggest oligarch in Russia and the richest man in the world, and my anti-corruption activities would no longer be tolerated.”
Browder is then expelled from Russia. As he notes: “Eighteen months after my expulsion a pair of simultaneous raids took place in Moscow. Over 25 Interior Ministry officials barged into my Moscow office and the office of the American law firm that represented me. The officials seized all the corporate documents connected to the investment holding companies of the funds that I advised. I didn’t know the purpose of these raids so I hired the smartest Russian lawyer I knew, a 35-year-old named Sergei Magnitsky. I asked Sergei to investigate the purpose of the raids and try to stop whatever illegal plans these officials had.
Sergei went out and investigated. He came back with the most astounding conclusion of corporate identity theft: The documents seized by the Interior Ministry were used to fraudulently re-register our Russian investment holding companies to a man named Viktor Markelov, a known criminal convicted of manslaughter. After more digging, Sergei discovered that the stolen companies were used by the perpetrators to misappropriate $230 million of taxes that our companies had paid to the Russian government in the previous year.”
Believing this to be a case of rogue officials, Browder goes on, “We filed criminal complaints with every law enforcement agency in Russia, and Sergei gave sworn testimony to the Russian State Investigative Committee (Russia’s FBI) about the involvement of officials in this crime.
However, instead of arresting the people who committed the crime, Sergei was arrested. Who took him? The same officials he had testified against. On November 24, 2008, they came to his home, handcuffed him in front of his family, and threw him into pre-trial detention.”
After slightly more than a year in prison, Magnitsky would be dead. Browder notes, “Sergei Magnitsky was murdered as my proxy. If Sergei had not been my lawyer, he would still be alive today.”
In reaction, Congress, in November 2012 would pass the Magnitsky Act and Putin would retaliate by banning the adoption of Russian children in the United States. Browder goes on to detail Putin’s personal corruption: “…since 2012 it’s emerged that Vladimir Putin was a beneficiary of the stolen $230 million that Sergei Magnitsky exposed. Recent revelations from the Panama Papers have shown that Putin’s closest childhood friend, Sergei Roldugin, a famous cellist, received $2 billion of funds from Russian oligarchs and the Russian state. It’s commonly understood that Mr. Roldugin received this money as an agent of Vladimir Putin. Information from the Panama Papers also links some money from the crime that Sergei Magnitsky discovered and exposed to Sergei Roldugin. Based on the language of the Magnitsky Act, this would make Putin personally subject to Magnitsky sanctions.”
Moreover, “There are approximately ten thousand officials in Russia working for Putin who are given instructions to kill, torture, kidnap, extort money from people, and seize their property. Before the Magnitsky Act, Putin could guarantee them impunity and this system of illegal wealth accumulation worked smoothly. However, after the passage of the Magnitsky Act, Putin’s guarantee disappeared. The Magnitsky Act created real consequences outside of Russia and this created a real problem for Putin and his system of kleptocracy.”
Browder’s testimony further provides a history of the Russian efforts in Washington to remove the Act. For example, “Veselnitskaya, through Baker Hostetler, hired Glenn Simpson of the firm Fusion GPS to conduct a smear campaign against me and Sergei Magnitsky in advance of congressional hearings on the Global Magnitsky Act . He contacted a number of major newspapers and other publications to spread false information that Sergei Magnitsky was not murdered, was not a whistle-blower, and was instead a criminal. They also spread false information that my presentations to lawmakers around the world were untrue.
As part of Veselnitskaya’s lobbying, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, Chris Cooper of the Potomac Group, was hired to organize the Washington, D.C.-based premiere of a fake documentary about Sergei Magnitsky and myself.”
And this, “They hired Howard Schweitzer of Cozzen O’Connor Public Strategies and former Congressman Ronald Dellums to lobby members of Congress on Capitol Hill to repeal the Magnitsky Act and to remove Sergei’s name from the Global Magnitsky bill.”
There’s more, focusing on Putin’s determination to undermine current US law for the benefit of Putin and company. Billions of dollars and personal fortunes are at stake. In all, it strongly suggests that Putin’s obsession with the Magnitsky Act significantly underlied his efforts meddling in the 2016 election and his bromance with Mr. Trump. But judge for yourself.