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Will the current sanctions actually push Russia to withdraw from Ukraine?


Back to Ukraine - the U.S. will direct directly and personally sanctioned Vladimir Putin and the Russian foreign minister. So will the European Union. Other members of Putin's government are also targeted, while nations from the U.K. to Japan, Australia and Taiwan freeze assets of some Russian individuals and financial entities.

Bill Browder thinks that sanctions can be even stronger. Of course, he's the CEO of Hermitage Capital Management. He was deported by Vladimir Putin and the Russian government in 2005. He's also head of the Global Magnitsky Justice Campaign. He joins us from London. Thanks so much for being with us, Mr. Browder.

BILL BROWDER: Great to be here.

SIMON: I'm going to guess Vladimir Putin has tucked millions or billions of rubles into a pair of socks since he came to power a little more than 20 years ago. Will direct sanctions hurt so much he'll change his policy in Ukraine?

BROWDER: Well, he's stolen hundreds of billions of dollars, not rubles, from the Russian people. And there's not enough socks in Russia to stuff them into. And so he has to keep that money somewhere. And the way he keeps that money is certainly not in his own name. He doesn't put it in his bank accounts that say Vladimir Putin on them. He goes to people he trusts.

These are the oligarchs. And these are people who are known to be rich. And so people don't look askance when they open up accounts with a billion dollars or two here and there. And those people don't hold that money in Russia. They hold it in London and New York and Switzerland and France. They buy properties. And so when we're talking about going after Vladimir Putin, it's absolutely great and symbolic and very essential to put him at the top of the sanctions list. But unless you put the people holding his money on the sanctions list as well, it's just a symbolic move, not a practical move.

SIMON: Can you name names and tell us what you'd like to see done?

BROWDER: Well, it's pretty straightforward. So if you look at, you know, what's happened over the last 20 years, there's a number of people who have gotten immensely rich. There - if you go to the Forbes list - the Forbes Russia list - of the top 50 people, most of those people on the list would have gotten rich because of Vladimir Putin. They hold money for Vladimir Putin and do things and provide support for him and other government officials.

And I live in London. So it's very unwise to name names because these people all have a massive history of suing people in courts. And even if you're absolutely right about it, you have to spend millions of dollars defending yourself. In fact, there was just a big lawsuit against a woman named Catherine Belton, who wrote a book about Putin's corruption and all the oligarchs. And she was sued by four oligarchs simultaneously, not just to shut her up, but to make a point to everybody else here that they don't want their names out there 'cause they're also afraid of what's coming down the pike, which is what I'm talking about.

SIMON: Also, we must note, Mr. Browder - and that's why we particularly are grateful that you joined us - there is a history of Russian agents in London settling Vladimir Putin's affairs in a direct and violent way, isn't there?

BROWDER: There is. And they've threatened to kill me. They threatened to kidnap me. They've issued eight Interpol arrest warrants to try to have me arrested and taken back to Russia. They've been bombarding the British law enforcement with extradition requests. They make movies about me, do all sorts of crazy stuff. I've survived so far. I've survived so far mainly because Putin has had one foot in the civilized world and one foot in the criminal world. And it's quite alarming now that he's taken his foot out of the civilized world because there's no - you know, he can do anything he wants now, and there's no further negative consequences. But I and many other people who have gone against him have to be very careful.

SIMON: Can he do anything he wants? Are - is there no check or balance?

BROWDER: Well, we're going to - I think in the West, we're trying to create some kind of check and balance by, you know, imposing devastating economic sanctions on him. I think there's a little bit more we still can do. The one thing which is still in the cards, and I think it's very appropriate at this point, is to disconnect Russia from the SWIFT international banking system.

SIMON: Yeah.

BROWDER: This is what was done against Iran. And it basically knocks them - any country that's disconnected - back to the Dark Ages economically. And that is something we should do and should do it now based - it's commensurate with the unbelievably nasty stuff he's doing in Ukraine right now.

SIMON: Will - I have to ask though. Would doing that, A, accomplish anything for the people of Ukraine and, B, also have disastrous consequences in Western democracies?

BROWDER: Well, the Ukrainian president is calling for it. It's - basically, one has to punish him for what he's done. You have to create a cost. And we may pay a cost in the West from this whole thing. But it's a lot smaller a cost than a Third World War, which is the direction this thing is heading in. And we should do everything possible to try and prevent that.

SIMON: And I'm sorry to - just to have 20 seconds left. But could these sanctions push Russia into the arms of China?

BROWDER: Russia is already in the arms of China. These sanctions will do nothing other than create problems for Vladimir Putin. And we should absolutely do them. There's no - there should be no reservations about these sanctions.

SIMON: Bill Browder - thank you so much for being with us, sir.

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