Author lays out context for Ukraine invasion, at Bush Center

Author Bill Browder
Author Bill Browder Photo credit Getty Images

At the George W. Bush Presidential Center at SMU this week, an author answered questions about Russia's invasion of Ukraine. The former president attended the lecture as part of the center's "NexPoint" lecture series.

Author Bill Browder is also chief executive of Hermitage Capital Management. His offices in Moscow were raided in 2007, and Browder was deported.

"A bunch of police officers, tax officials and organized criminals seized documents from my office. They used these documents to illegally refund $230 million. This wasn't my money. It was Russian government money," he said.

Browder said an associate, Sergei Magnitsky, figured out what had happened. At the time, Browder said he thought Putin was a "nationalist and a patriot" who would not tolerate corruption against the Russian government. Instead, he says officers arrested Magnitsky, who was later killed.

"We sat back and waited for the good guys to get the bad guys," he said. "It turns out, in Putin's Russia, there are no good guys."

Since then, Browder said 35 countries, including the United States, have introduced laws to punish Russian human rights violations.

Browder has now released the book, Freezing Order: A True Story of Money Laundering, Murder, and Surviving Vladimir Putin's Wrath. He answered questions from Ken Hersch, chief executive of the Bush Presidential Center.

Asked why Putin might have invaded Ukraine, Browder said Putin uses war to distract Russian people from $1 trillion Putin and oligarchs have diverted from infrastructure, schools and hospitals.

"Remember that movie, Wag the Dog? That's what this is all about," Browder said. "He wanted a foreign enemy to take pressure off himself. In a certain way, it's worked the way he wanted it to. He has a very high approval rating, and it's a genuine approval rating. People rally around the flag. People root for the home team."

Browder also said, after having spent 12 years in a personal conflict with Putin, he has learned Putin will not accept failure.

"He can fail in all sorts of ways, and he just doubles down, triples down, quadruples down," Browder said. "I expect he will escalate this conflict in a major, major way. I believe he's far from being counted out."

Browder said he suspects the most likely outcome is "continued war." He says the best option for the United States and international community to get Putin out of power would be to pour more resources into helping Ukraine win the war instead of only holding Russia off in a prolonged conflict.

"Ukrainians have morale on their side, they have the right on their side, they have the support of the international community on their side," he said. "Putin's turning toward Iran and North Korea."

Browder said support from oligarchs may start to wane if they find "pressure points" in the system.

"It's the old saying, I think it really came into fashion in the Arab Spring in 2011: These regimes seem stable until they're not," he said. "You never quite know what the tipping point is in some of these countries."

David Kramer, the Bradford M. Freeman Managing Director of Global Policy at the Bush Institute, also spoke during the event, saying the U.S. should not have recognized Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014. He says defeating Russia in Ukraine "would be a huge blow to Putin, to authoritarianism."

"You've got to remember China is watching what happens here," he said. "How we respond to Russia's invasion of Ukraine will have enormous bearing on whether China might decide to invade Taiwan."

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