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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

Kendall Baker, author of Sports
46 mins ago - Sports

College basketball is back

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A new season of college basketball begins Wednesday, and the goal is clear: March Madness must be played.

Why it matters: On March 12, 2020, the lights went out on college basketball, depriving teams like Baylor (who won our tournament simulation), Dayton, San Diego State and Florida State of perhaps their best chance to win a national championship.

52 mins ago - World

Scoop: Israeli military prepares for possibility Trump will strike Iran

Defense Minister Benny Gantz attends a cabinet meeting. Photo: Abir Sultan/POOL/AFP via Getty

The Israel Defense Forces have in recent weeks been instructed to prepare for the possibility that the U.S. will conduct a military strike against Iran before President Trump leaves office, senior Israeli officials tell me.

Why it matters: The Israeli government instructed the IDF to undertake the preparations not because of any intelligence or assessment that Trump will order such a strike, but because senior Israeli officials anticipate “a very sensitive period” ahead of Biden's inauguration on Jan. 20.

Wall Street bets it all on a vaccine

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

It's the time of year when Wall Street shops are rolling out predictions for where they see the stock market headed in the coming year. There's one common theme: Widespread distribution of a vaccine is the reason to be bullish.

Why it matters: Analysts say vaccines will help the economy heal, corporate profits rebound and stock market continue its upward trajectory.