The massive economic sanctions brought against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine have not only punished Russian elites — they have also prompted many countries to examine their complicity in helping corrupt officials launder money and park assets abroad. Bill Browder’s new book, “Freezing Order: A True Story of Money Laundering, Murder, and Surviving Vladimir Putin’s Wrath,” is an essential work by someone who understood long before the rest of the world did just how far corrupt Russian officials and businesspeople will go to defend their ill-gotten wealth, and how foreign lawyers, lobbyists and public relations firms enable them.
Browder is an American-born British financier who invested in Russia in the 1990s as the country was privatizing many businesses. His Hermitage Fund emerged as the one of the largest foreign investors in Russia in the early 2000s. As a minority investor in some of Russia’s largest companies, Browder became concerned when his investments suffered because of the fraud and corruption of the majority shareholders, many of whom had close ties to the Kremlin. After revealing the details of the shenanigans, he was barred from Russia in 2005 and was declared a threat to national security.
“Freezing Order” is a sequel to Browder’s earlier bestseller, “Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice,” which told the tale of Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer working for Browder’s Moscow investment firm. Magnitsky uncovered a $230 million tax fraud, was arrested by Russian officials to cover up the crime and died in a notorious Moscow prison at age 37 in 2009. The earlier book recounted Browder’s dogged efforts to create a new legal instrument to go after the wealth and mobility of individual perpetrators of human rights violations, rather than target the governments in whose name they claimed to act. “Red Notice” culminated with Congress passing the Magnitsky Act in 2012, landmark legislation that allows for travel bans, asset seizures and visa freezes on human rights violators. The legislation has been copied in more than 30 countries and now is used against a range of individuals with ties to China, Venezuela and Myanmar, among other nations.
“Freezing Order” picks up the tale and focuses on attempts by Russian officials and their hired guns in the United States and Britain to impede and unwind this legislation. Browder tells a complicated story with great clarity and keen pacing. A key feature of modern autocracies like Russia is the ability of powerful people to loot their economies at home and park their assets in safe havens in the West. The Magnitsky Act is designed to prevent this predation. “Freezing Order” recounts how one Russian-owned company called Prevezon fought back.
If in “Red Notice” Browder was playing offense, in “Freezing Order” he is playing defense. Key to the story are the Justice Department’s attempts to freeze properties in New York City purchased by Prevezon using assets generated from the tax fraud scheme uncovered by Magnitsky. Much of the tale centers on Prevezon’s creative attempts — through legal maneuvers, public relations efforts and even an appeal to the Trump campaign — to prevent the U.S. government from freezing its assets.
Like the Terminator, when the Russian side suffers a setback, it puts itself back together and charges anew. Its forces framed Browder for tax fraud in Russia, conducted smear campaigns against him in Europe and used very broad subpoenas in U.S. courts in hopes of gaining compromising information against him.
Browder is at his best in describing the hand-to-hand combat of his high-stakes legal battle: dodging subpoenas in Colorado, recognizing honey traps in Europe and playing the media in the United States. He expertly walks us through the ins and outs of various legal strategies and developments that include enough high drama, plot twists and colorful characters for a movie.
Browder also describes a series of increasingly macabre court cases brought against him in Russia, including one in which a Moscow court tried Browder in absentia and Magnitsky posthumously. If Browder were to be extradited to Russia, he would face more than 20 years in prison.
We also meet heroic Russians like Boris Nemtsov, a dissident politician who called the Magnitsky Act the most “pro-Russian law passed in the United States in the history of our countries” because it held the potential to protect ordinary Russians from the predation of state officials — and who was assassinated in 2015. We also learn of Vladimir Kara-Murza, a human rights activist who pressed hard for Magnitsky-style sanctions on Russian elites and who suspects he was twice poisoned in Moscow. This past Monday, Kara-Murza was taken into custody by police in Moscow.
Browder’s analysis is not burdened by subtlety. In his storytelling, there are good guys driven by a thirst for justice and bad guys motivated by greed. For Browder, the baddies are less the Russian officials in question than their enablers in the West, including the improbably named American lawyer John Moscow, who after giving legal advice to Browder ended up representing Prevezon against the U.S. government; Glenn Simpson, a former journalist who founded the investigation firm Fusion GPS and who, Browder writes, provided information about him to the Russians; and Dana Rohrabacher, a mild-mannered Republican congressman from California who, House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy privately asserted, had accepted money from Putin. After 15 terms in the House, Rohrabacher was defeated in 2018. Browder is far from a dispassionate narrator of “Freezing Order.” Indeed, one strength of the work is the passion he brings to the tale.
Browder’s story loses some focus in the rare instances when he pulls back from the details of the Prevezon case and links it to broader political events. He argues that a main impetus for the Kremlin’s intervention in the U.S. presidential election in 2016 was to gain a repeal of the Magnitsky Act. This may be true, but the Kremlin has been trying to intervene in U.S. elections in various ways for decades and had other reasons to do so in 2016, such as to prevent a victory by Hillary Clinton. Browder’s claim that repealing the Magnitsky Act was “Putin’s top foreign policy objective” and motivated his meddling requires more substantiation.
Browder’s detractors point out that he gave up his U.S. citizenship reportedly for more favorable tax treatment in Britain and that the Panama Papers revealed that he, too, used shell companies incorporated in the British Virgin Islands. He is not a Russian speaker, and his analyses of Russian politics tend toward the black and white. Still, Browder’s great courage, ingenuity and commitment are beyond question and are on full display in “Freezing Order.” And he has done something remarkable by coming up with a new tool — targeted sanctions against individuals — in international politics. That Russian officials try so hard to undo this achievement indicates the power of the legislation. For this feat alone, Browder deserves tremendous credit.
Two broader lessons emerge from “Freezing Order.” First, the system, even in its weak and problematic condition, can work. Despite attempts to discredit Browder, to intimidate witnesses and to buy the best legal counsel available, Prevezon ultimately lost the case, the sanctions remain in place, and Browder is not doing time in Siberia. Even President Donald Trump was cowed into submission after initially reacting positively to an offer from Putin to allow U.S. interrogations of 12 Russian intelligence officers charged in connection with the 2016 election, in exchange for Russian questioning of Browder, former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul and 10 other Americans. (The Senate sent a message to Trump by rejecting Putin’s offer in a 98-to-0 vote.) Second, it takes enormous effort and courage to make the system work. Beyond Browder’s team, we all owe a great debt to the talented researchers and journalists at organizations like the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, who are incredible guides through the murky world of money laundering and asset hiding, and who provided much of the material for the Prevezon case and many other investigations.
Russia’s war in Ukraine has generated momentum in the United States, Britain and other jurisdictions to crack down on money laundering and asset hiding, but the window to make major changes may close quickly in the United States should the Republicans take Congress in 2022 or the presidency in 2024. Browder’s “Freezing Order” is not just a cracking good read — it is a reminder of the urgency of addressing the global plague of money laundering.
Timothy Frye is the Marshall Shulman professor in the department of political science at Columbia University and the author of “Weak Strongman: The Limits of Power in Putin’s Russia.”
A True Story of Money Laundering, Murder, and Surviving Vladimir Putin’s Wrath
By Bill Browder
Simon & Schuster. 313 pp. $28.99