Photo: Julia Reinhart/Getty Images
No story caused a bigger stir in Davos this week than the news that two suspected Russian spies had been caught in August posing as plumbers in the Alpine town.
Between the lines: One prominent attendee instantly suspected a personal connection. Bill Browder, a U.S.-born financier and long-standing thorn in the side of Vladimir Putin, tells Axios that before departing for Davos he received a warning from the British security services — passed along by their Swiss counterparts — that he could be in danger.
- “I can’t say for sure, but I believe the two were connected," Browder says of the spies and the warning. "I’ve been coming here for 23 years and this is the first time I’ve ever received a security warning about the Russians.”
Zoom out: Browder's Hermitage Capital was the largest foreign investment fund in Russia until 2005, when he was expelled from the country and Hermitage's offices were raided.
- Browder's lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, subsequently uncovered a massive fraud scheme allegedly involving Russian officials. He died in prison, apparently after being tortured.
- Browder has since been fighting a fierce campaign against the Kremlin. He was the force behind the 2012 Magnitsky Act, which enables visa bans and overseas asset freezes for individuals accused of human rights violations.
Driving the news: "The Russians are particularly mad at me right now," Browder told Axios, "because we’re on the verge of getting a European Magnitsky Act."
- Browder says this is the culmination of a 10-year effort and "probably the most devastating thing that could happen to the Putin regime" given the property and assets key players own in Europe.
The big picture: "Every time there’s something like this going on, the Russians always do something to me," Browder says. "In Canada, when they passed their Magnitsky Act, they put me on the Interpol list for like the sixth time."
- Browder says he's not aiming for regime change in Russia, and firmly believes Putin will hold power "until the end of his life — whether it’s a natural end or a violent end.”
- "They’re going to do whatever they’re going to do inside of Russia," he continues, "but as an outsider, I can and I will prevent them from exporting their criminality to the West.”
Worth noting: Browder speculates that Russia may have been "planning an operation" against him, though nothing directly links the "plumbers" to him.
- Unusually for plumbers, the two men claimed diplomatic immunity. Police believed they intended to place surveillance equipment in key locations ar0und Davos, per the FT