A veteran Putin foe sizes up the response to the war in Ukraine

The Russian army’s astonishing underperformance in Ukraine has been attributed to a combination of Ukrainian heroism and rock-bottom morale among Russian soldiers. Bill Browder points to a third explanation: corruption. “My estimate,” he says, “is that 80% of the military budget is stolen by Russia’s generals, because 80% of all budgets in Russia are stolen by the officials in charge.”

The army has been “gutted by all this corruption.” Money meant to pay soldiers has been stolen. The grunts, Mr. Browder says, survive by selling gasoline from the tanks they drive. And that was before the war in Ukraine.

Few people know corruption in Russia as intimately as Mr. Browder does. For more than a decade, he’s been among the world’s most vocal crusaders against Vladimir Putin, whom he calls “the greatest kleptocrat of the modern era.” The Anglo-American Mr. Browder, 57, was the largest private investor in Russia until his expulsion from that country in 2005. This was for attempting to investigate the theft from the Russian treasury of $230 million in taxes his company, Hermitage Capital, had paid. After Russia booted Mr. Browder, his Moscow lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, pursued the investigation and was beaten to death by police in riot gear in a prison cell in 2009. Mr. Browder has written in detail of these events in “Red Notice” (2015) and a sequel, “Freezing Order,” to be published next month.

Mr. Browder’s relentless lobbying over the next decade—driven by grief and anger over Magnitsky’s murder—has led 34 countries to enact laws that impose sanctions on human-rights violators in Russia. The U.S. version is known informally as the Magnitsky Act.

As with many zealous men, there’s a touch of immodesty to Mr. Browder’s righteousness. “The entire world has joined me,” he says, in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine by Mr. Putin, whose status as a pitiless despot is now undisputed. “I was a lone voice for 10 years. But over a 48-hour period, the entire world has joined me.”

Speaking to me by Zoom from his house in central London, Mr. Browder becomes visibly animated when we talk of Mr. Putin’s personal worth. “It’s north of $200 billion,” he says. “None of the money is in his own name. All of it is in the name of his oligarch trustees.” He offers a ready reckoner to calculate Mr. Putin’s wealth: Tot up the worth of every oligarch and divide the sum by 2. Half their wealth is “held in trust” for Mr. Putin. “Basically, in order to be rich in Russia, you can only do it at the pleasure of Vladimir Putin. He can take it away from you at any point unless you do things he asks you to do.” There may be people “who started out as nice individuals,” but they’ve all “effectively given in to his extortion and have become his partners.”

The quantum of Mr. Putin’s ill-gotten wealth, as estimated by Mr. Browder, leads me to ask what the Russian president could conceivably do with all that money. “Well, it’s not about having it for his retirement,” Mr. Browder chuckles. “It’s about power.”

The money, he says, is Mr. Putin’s only so long as he’s ruling Russia. “The moment he’s not in power, none of these handshake deals with the oligarchs will be respected.” Mr. Putin has all this wealth “because you can’t be the most powerful person in Russia without being the richest person. It’s an alpha-male society on steroids, so you have to be the biggest, meanest, richest, everythingest person if you’re going to be the dictator.”

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