Craig G. Bartholomew is the Director of the Kirby Laing Centre for Public Theology in Cambridge.
There is at present regular discussion among news outlets as to whether or not the sanctions against Putin, his colleagues and the oligarchs work. They do, and one of my reasons for saying this is the remarkable work of Bill Browder and Putin’s reaction to it.
Around the time in 2018 that the Putin regime recklessly attempted to assassinate the double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, UK, using a highly toxic nerve agent called Novichok, I discovered Bill Browder’s explosive and searing Red Notice: How I Became Putin’s No. 1 Enemy (2015). After graduating from Stanford, Browder set up the largest hedge fund in the new Russia. He and his colleagues began to expose the rampant and breathtaking corruption they discovered. Initially this was useful to Putin until one day Browder flew back to Moscow only to be held and then extradited back to the UK. The full force of the Kremlin was unleashed against his company and workers.
A Russian lawyer he employed, Sergei Magnitsky, continued to expose the corruption. Magnitsky refused to go into hiding because, he said, there were human rights in the new Russia. Sergei was arrested, imprisoned, tortured, and when his health broke down completely he was taken to a prison with a medical centre, handcuffed to a pipe in a room and then beaten to death. His crime: as a Christian Sergei was not willing to sign up to the state propaganda about Browder: you shall not bear false witness.
Browder could not get the British or the US government to act. The Obama White House was resetting relations with Russia. However, several senators in the US Congress worked with Browder to get the Magnitsky Act passed, which targeted the assets of every person involved in Sergei’s murder. Since then 34 countries have passed similar Magnitsky Acts and a Global Magnitsky Act has come into existence which targets human rights’ abusers globally.
Tellingly and brutally, the day after the Magnitsky Act was passed by the US Congress, Putin banned the adoption of Russian babies by Americans. Brutally, because these were often sick and unwell babies who benefitted enormously from being adopted by Americans. This is important, because when you hear that Donald Trump Jr. and Donald Trump himself only discussed “adoption” with Putin and Russian representatives, this is certainly code for Putin requesting that the Magnitsky Act be repealed, and probably that Browder be handed over to Russia.
Red Notice and now Browder’s latest must-read book, Freezing Order: A True Story of Russian Money Laundering, Murder and Surviving Vladimir Putin’s Wrath (2022), document the great lengths to which Putin has gone to try to get the Magnitsky Act repealed and Browder’s work halted. Why? Because Putin and his kleptocrats keep the huge amounts of money they have stolen from the Russian economy in the West, where they and their families enjoy lavish lifestyles, superyachts, great houses and the high life. Putin cares about money and power, and the Magnitsky Act threatens both, as do the unprecedented raft of sanctions imposed since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24. Freezing assets and sanctions work.
Russia’s brutal and unprovoked war against Ukraine should come as no surprise. The warning signs have been many: Georgia, Salisbury, Crimea, Syria, to name some of the most prominent. When we recoil from the horrors of Bucha and other Ukrainian cities, we need also to think of Aleppo and Obama’s famous red line that turned out to be no red line at all. London has been awash with corrupt Russian money for decades and, until the war in Ukraine, we mostly turned a blind eye, glad to have all this money flowing around our capital. The first use of a nerve agent on European soil since World War II with the attempted assassination of the Skripals should have caused national outrage. This was notable – not least among the churches – by its absence.
Some of the most disturbing aspects of Freezing Order are the harrowing stories of Putin and his oligarchs’ enablers in the West. A veritable industry of PR firms, lawyers, and the elite selling their souls for Russian money is profoundly disturbing. The Putin regime has learnt well how to play the Western game and, amidst our hollowed-out Western consumer culture, far too many have been more than willing to assist. Competent lawyers with integrity are a gift; competent lawyers without integrity are a curse. In Freezing Order lawyers function as heroes and as despicable anti-heroes.
The war in Ukraine and Browder’s new book should make us revisit aspects of the Trump presidency. Chapter 39 of Freezing Order is important. Trump described Putin’s offer to hand over 12 Russian hackers in exchange for Browder as an “incredible offer.” He only walked this back after pressure in Washington mounted. And we should not forget Trump’s “perfect” phone call with Volodymyr Zelenskyy when he tried to withhold military aid in order to secure dirt on Hunter Biden. This led to Trump’s first impeachment. The calibre of Zelenskyy as a wartime leader is now available for everyone to see, a spectacle that illumines Trump’s manipulation of a vulnerable leader for what it was.
Sergei’s, Browder’s, and so many others’, stories are ones of extraordinary courage. Vladimir Kara-Murza is another exceptionally courageous Russian politician. He is a protégé of Boris Nemtsov, the Putin opponent brutally gunned down outside the Kremlin. Kara-Murza has worked closely with Browder. Twice he has been nearly fatally poisoned. As I write, in the last week, Kara-Murza was arrested in Moscow. He is a graduate of Cambridge University and also holds British citizenship; once again the silence is deafening.
I learned from the book of Job that evil, for that is what it is, has a habit of overreaching itself. Satan could never have dreamt of how Job would be formed by his suffering and emerge at the end having “seen God.” It seems that with the war in Ukraine, Putin may have done the same, namely badly overreached. His actions have united Europe, NATO and democratic countries around the world in their opposition, achieving the opposite of what he has worked for over years. While for years Browder has often been a voice crying in the wilderness, now he is being consulted by government amidst the crisis. We need to do all we can to ensure that Putin has indeed overreached. One small way to do this is to read both of Browder’s books.
Another way for Christians to help is to recognize Sergei Magnitsky in our church calendars each year as a 21st-century Christian martyr. He was murdered on 16 November 2009, 358 days after he had been arrested. In Red Notice Browder writes, “Sergei was religious and he would not violate God’s ninth commandment: ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness.’” (255).