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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

Go deeper

Biden warned Putin of specific "consequences" if Russia invades Ukraine

Photo: Kremlin Press Office/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

In a video call that lasted for just over two hours on Tuesday, President Biden warned Russian President Vladimir Putin that if Russia invades Ukraine the U.S. will impose unprecedented sanctions and provide additional weaponry to the Ukrainians, national security adviser Jake Sullivan said.

Why it matters: Russia's military activity on the border with Ukraine has triggered alarms from the U.S. and its European allies of a potential large-scale Russian invasion in early 2022. Sullivan said Biden made clear to Putin that, "things we did not do in 2014, we are prepared to do now."

Senate leaders sell members on debt limit deal

Sen. Chuck Schumer (L) and Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) are urging their respective caucuses to back a deal that would clear a path to raising the debt ceiling.

Driving the news: The agreement, negotiated by the two leaders and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), involves Congress passing a law allowing a one-time rule change so the Senate can raise the debt ceiling with just 51 votes, rather than the 60 typically needed to overcome the filibuster.

Updated 2 hours ago - Health

CDC: 60% of U.S. is fully vaccinated

Photo: Nick Oxford/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Sixty percent of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Why it matters: This comes as the Omicron variant continues to spread across the U.S. It has been detected in 19 states, and the number is expected to increase, CDC director Rochelle Walensky said during Tuesday's White House COVID-19 briefing.