It doesn’t matter whether a Michigan man is a spy or not, his being held “hostage” by the Russian government should signal a threat to all Americans who travel abroad personally and professionally, said a Chicago-born financier who lives in London and runs a global investment firm.
“The standard protocol with countries that accuse each other of spying is to deport the suspects, not arrest them,” said Bill Browder, CEO of Hermitage Capital Management, which was the largest foreign investor in Russia until he was expelled by Vladimir Putin in 2005.
“For example, when the Dutch government caught four Russian agents red-handed trying to attempt a cyber attack on the chemical weapons testing facility in The Hague, they grabbed them and sent them to the airport and deported them to Russia,” Browder told the Free Press on Wednesday morning by telephone from London.
Browder, an outspoken critic of Russian corruption and Putin specifically, said the former KGB agent now running Russia is desperate to find a way to disrupt the investigation led by Robert Mueller into alleged corruption of the U.S. election system.
“I think Putin is in a raw panic because of Maria Butina, the Russian woman who was caught trying to basically take money from Russia and contribute it to the Trump campaign via the NRA,” Browder said. “She has pleaded guilty and offered to cooperate with Robert Mueller’s investigation. Up until five days ago, there was 100 percent chance she was going to cooperate. Now, all of a sudden, Putin has taken a hostage, an ex-military officer. This gives him some possibility of negotiating a prisoner swap.”
Butina pleaded guilty in December to conspiring on behalf of the Kremlin to cultivate sources inside the Republican Party prior to the 2016 presidential election.
Until Dec. 28, when Paul Whelan, a former Marine from Novi, was taken into custody, without the knowledge of embassy officials or notification of his family, “the Russians had no leverage,” Browder said. “All of a sudden, they have an American hostage and everything changes in terms of their position. Make no mistake, this is a hostage situation.”
Whelan, an executive with the Auburn Hills-based auto supplier BorgWarner, traveled to Russia to attend a wedding.
“I have no facts to say whether he was spying or wasn’t spying, but it’s all very unusual, how fast they said they had arrested him without notifying the American government or his family. Very unusual. Timing here is everything,” said Browder, who is deemed a national security threat to Russia and was the focus of discussion between Putin and President Donald Trump in the summer of 2018. Putin, at their meeting in Helsinki, asked Trump to hand over the financier, who is living in England.
Battle with Putin
Browder, convicted in absentia in Russia of tax evasion, successfully lobbied Congress for the Magnitsky Act, which imposed sanctions on Russians accused of human rights violations. It was inspired by the death in a Russian prison of Browder’s lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky. Browder also testified before Congress in 2017 about Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election.
“Let’s say he was a spy. Why wouldn’t they have done the same thing with him as everybody does with everybody’s spies?” Browder asked.
Now comes a high-profile test of American leadership, Browder said.
“The way in which the U.S. government responds to this is going to be very telling about whether this is a prolonged issue or whether it gets resolved quickly,” he said. “The U.S. government should respond extremely aggressively. If they don’t, this has a very negative impact on Americans all over the world. If Americans can be grabbed by corrupt dictators for political purposes, you can be assured more Americans will be taken hostage in other countries. This is a litmus test for how tough the Trump administration is.”
The Russians provided the U.S. consulate access only on Wednesday, which is “quite strange,” Browder noted. “They should’ve given the American government immediate access to a person who is arrested.”
He continued, “What’s going to happen next is that the Russian government will make all sorts of spurious and outlandish claims about Mr. Whelan, which will be easily disprovable with facts, but there will be no due process to give the U.S. government or Mr. Whelan the opportunity to disprove them. This is going to be resolved at a geopolitical level, not a legal level. There is no rule of law in Russia. Unlike American courts, which are independent, in Russia the judges basically take dictation from the Kremlin.”
Browder is author of the New York Times bestseller, “Red Notice: A Story of High Finance, Murder and One Man’s Fight for Justice,” published by Simon & Schuster. He earned an undergraduate degree from the University of Chicago and an MBA at Stanford University.
He is known internationally for his campaign to get the U.S., Canada and other countries to issues visa sanctions and assets freezes on human rights violators in Russia. Canada has passed its own version of the law.
Russia has asked British authorities to arrest Browder, but they have declined to get involved in the political fight.
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