February 20, 2024 - 10:30am

Bill Browder, the financier and political activist who previously campaigned for sanctions against Russian human rights abuses, has said that he is ready to lead a second effort in response to the death of Alexei Navalny.

Browder has been targeted by the Kremlin as an alleged criminal fugitive since his deportation from Russia in 2005. He led the global campaign for jurisdictions including the US, UK, EU, Canada and Australia to introduce Magnitsky Acts, named after his former lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died suspiciously in a Russian prison.

Speaking to me a few days after Navalny’s death in a Russian penal colony on Friday, Browder said the only way to hit Russian President Vladimir Putin where it hurts would be to take his money. Building on previous comments made on X, he claimed this would involve seizing the roughly $300 billion in Russian central bank assets and giving them to Ukraine.

“Now is the moment. We should call it the Navalny Act,” Browder told me. “Putin is willing to lose one million men, but to lose $300 billion would be a cataclysmic loss.”

He went on: “All world leaders are looking for a way to hit Putin back for this murder. I’ve been working on confiscating these assets for the last two years, and the Navalny murder is the impetus to get it done.”

Browder added that it was vital to send the funds by the end of the year and before the possibility of Donald Trump being re-elected US president in November’s election because “then it’s all bets off for Ukraine”.

These statements follow an IMF forecast from the end of last month which claims that Russia’s economy is growing more quickly than any of its Western counterparts, with a predicted GDP rise of 2.6% this year. Commentators have argued that previous efforts at sanctioning Russia have fallen short of their aims, with private consumption returning to pre-invasion levels.

In a joint statement issued soon after the announcement of Navalny’s death, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and the bloc’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell said the EU would “spare no efforts to hold the Russian political leadership and authorities to account”, but made no mention of the frozen assets.

The bulk of Russia’s assets are held by the Brussels-based central securities depository Euroclear, whose head recently warned against such a move. Chief executive Lieve Mostrey told the Financial Times that it would be tantamount to an indirect seizure of sovereign assets, which would trigger legal claims as well as potentially undermine market confidence in the euro.

Permanently confiscating Russian assets, as opposed to using their profits, is opposed by France, Germany and Belgium, though a similar idea to Browder’s has been proposed by former UK foreign secretary and Tory leader William Hague who, writing in the Times, said: “We have passed the point at which those assets will ever be returned.” Current Foreign Secretary David Cameron also raised the possibility of further Russian sanctions on Monday.

Navalny’s death and the Russian state’s alleged involvement has sent shockwaves through Europe, with leaders fearing it shows an emboldened Putin, following Trump’s open encouragement of Russia to attack Nato countries which do not pay enough for their defence and the fall of the Ukrainian city of Avdiivka.

Yulia Navalnaya, Navalny’s widow, released a video yesterday saying she knew why Putin killed her husband and would reveal the reason soon. She vowed to continue her husband’s fight for a freer Russia and urged his supporters to “unite in a strong fist” to “defeat Putin” and the “bandits” who comprise his allies.

Russian authorities are still refusing to release Navalny’s body. Asked if he was willing to campaign for a Navalny Act as he had done for Magnitsky, Browder said, “Yes, I am.”

Latika M. Bourke is a journalist and author based in London with more than twenty years of experience covering Australian politics, British politics and international affairs. She writes at www.latikambourke.com.