One of the most prominent critics of President Vladimir Putin says he narrowly escaped a plot against him by Russian operatives at a previous summit of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
U.S.-born financier and rights activist Bill Browder told CNBC’s Geoff Cutmore at Davos that in January of 2020, “I got a phone call from the security services of the United Kingdom, where I live, and they said that they’d been informed by the Swiss security services that they’d uncovered a Russian plot to be executed against me at Davos.”
Browder was once Russia’s largest foreign investor, making millions in the 1990s and early 2000s in the heady early years following the collapse of the Soviet Union. After exposing large-scale government corruption in Russia, he was made persona non grata and later spearheaded the Global Magnitsky Act, which enables sanctions on officials involved in corruption and human rights abuses.
Putin has specifically asked for Browder to be extradited to Russia, where he has been charged in absentia with a slew of crimes he says are completely made up by the Kremlin.
“The Swiss ended up arresting two Russians before the Davos forum,” Browder continued. “When they asked them for their IDs, they showed them diplomatic passports, asked to be released and fled the country. So I’m very happy to be at Davos this time, no arrests, and there’s no Russians here to do whatever terrible things they were planning to do to me.”
William Browder, chief executive officer of Hermitage Capital Management, takes his seat as he arrives for a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing titled ‘Oversight of the Foreign Agents Registration Act and Attempts to Influence U.S. Elections’ in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill, July 27, 2017 in Washington, DC.
Drew Angerer | Getty Images
In August of 2019, Swiss police reportedly found two Russians posing as plumbers, who had come under suspicion by staying for an unusually long time.
Zürich’s Tages-Anzeiger newspaper reported that Swiss officials and police concluded that the pair were Russian spies employed by the Kremlin to tap into the conversations of important figures at the summit. Police told the Financial Times that the men claimed they had diplomatic protection, although they had not registered this with official Swiss authorities. The Swiss police found no indications of criminal acts and released the men, the newspaper reported. Browder commented that this example showed the reach of the Russian state internationally.
Browder has been hit with several Russian-issued Interpol red notices while traveling, each time being detained only to be released again shortly thereafter as the warrants were dismissed for being — according to Interpol itself — “of a predominantly political nature.”
Browder’s Magnitsky Act, which made him a top enemy of Putin, is named after his former lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who uncovered wide-ranging fraud and corruption by Russian government officials and was consequently killed in a Russian prison with forensic evidence showing signs of battery.
The Kremlin has rejected the accusations, claiming that Browder himself ordered his lawyer’s death, which the investor and Western officials have dismissed as ludicrous.
Russians, normally in high attendance at the glitzy annual event at Davos, have been barred this year due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. That’s a big relief to Browder, who warned that without harsher penalties on Russia including energy embargoes, Putin will not stop the expansion of his military onslaught.
“We have to do everything we can to help the Ukrainians stop him,” Browder said of Putin. “And they’ve done a pretty good job. They are holding him back.” But the only way to ensure Ukraine’s survival is to increase military support and “stop funding [Putin’s] war machine, freeze his assets,” he said. “Stop sending him a billion dollars a day for the purchase of oil and gas.”
“And if he stays at war and he somehow gets Ukraine, the next stop is Estonia or Poland or something like that,” Browder added.
Three months into the war, Russian forces have failed to gain air superiority in Ukraine and retreated from major cities including areas around Kyiv after failing to break through Ukrainian defenses. Russia is heavily bombarding eastern Ukraine with the goal to take the Donbas, which Ukrainian officials say has been almost completely destroyed. Western nations have committed tends of billions of dollars in military and humanitarian aid for Ukraine.