WASHINGTON (CN) – A hedge fund manager who pushed for accountability after a Russian lawyer’s apparent assassination told members of Congress on Thursday that U.S. sanctions are working. Ending them is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s top priority.
The Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act gets its name from a Russian tax lawyer who was beaten to death in a Moscow jail in 2009, shortly after he helped untangle a $230 million tax fraud scheme implicating Kremlin-linked individuals.
Bill Browder, the Hermitage Capital Management CEO who hired Magnitsky, did not let the lawyer’s death end the investigation. Over the next three years, Browder spearheaded a global campaign to target the assets of the individuals involved in Magnitsky’s arrest and imprisonment.
Since its passage in 2012 by former President Barack Obama, Browder said, the Magnitsky Act has terrified Russian human rights abusers and infuriated Putin.
The Helsinki Commission, a congressional group that monitors the 1975 diplomatic accord struck in Finland, called Browder to testify Thursday about the law on its five-year anniversary.
Browder said the Magnitsky Act manages to hurt Putin’s personal coffers and those of his close associates, giving the U.S. leverage over Russia.
“The angrier Putin is, the more we know we’re onto something right,” Browder said in an interview. “We found his Achilles heel, which is his kleptocracy.”
Echoing a point by Russian chess champion Gary Kasparov, a fellow witness Thursday and outspoken Putin critic, Browder said the law gives the United States an effective way to deal with Russia.
“We don’t have to fight them with tanks anymore, we can fight them with banks,” he said. “And that’s what the Magnitsky Act is all about.”
The Obama administration voiced concern at the time about antagonizing Putin, but the bill passed both chambers with overwhelming bipartisan support.
Next month, the State Department will release a list of individuals designated as human rights abusers under the Magnitsky Act. Many are anxious to see how the report will be received by President Donald Trump, still facing scrutiny about his campaign’s suspected coordination with Russia in the manipulation of the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
At the Helsinki Commission on Thursday, Kasparov suggested that Russia might be a different place today if the free world had taken a stand against Putin before he consolidated power.
“Today, there is no longer any need to discuss human rights in Putin’s Russia,” he said. “They are gone, and Putin is revealed to all as what we warned he could become: a dictator.”
Treating the Kremlin like a mafia is the key, Kasparov said, to hurting it. He added that the Magnitsky Act is working, but would work better if strengthened.
The chess champion offered insight about Russia’s tactics in an interview as well, saying anti-America propaganda is a dominant force in Putin’s artillery.
“[The] economy is in terrible shape,” Kasparov said. “And I think he’s realistic enough to recognize it will never recover. Oil prices will never jump again to $100 plus dollars per barrel. So he has to rely on his ability to spread chaos, and to create this illusion of Russia being surrounded by world evil.”
Kasparov called the evidence of Russia’s meddling, both in the United States and abroad, overwhelming.
“He’s not going anywhere,” Kasparov said of Putin. “For him confrontation with the free world is the core of his domestic propaganda. It’s a message in Russia that, ‘I’m in power and I will stay in power forever because I have to protect Mother Russia against world evil led by the United States.’
“He will not stop hurting America – domestically or internationally – and American interests, since for him it’s the main argument for staying in power,” Kasparov added.