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Britain Expels 23 Russian Diplomats After Ex-Spy Is Poisoned

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The British government expelled 23 Russians from the country yesterday. Russia has sent signals that it is going to respond in kind and kick diplomats out of its country. Now the British response was a response to the poisoning of a former spy and his daughter on British soil. Prime Minister Theresa May told the House of Commons that the government is considering imposing sanctions now.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER THERESA MAY: We will continue to bring all the capabilities of U.K. law enforcement to bear against serious criminals and corrupt elites. There is no place for these people or their money in our country.

GREENE: Now, the response May is talking about could look something like the Magnitsky Act. That's a U.S. law named after Sergei Magnitsky. He was a Russian lawyer who uncovered a massive corruption scandal and ended up dead in a Russian prison. For nearly a decade, Bill Browder has crisscrossed the globe seeking justice for Magnitsky, who was his lawyer and his friend. Browder has been asking countries to freeze the assets of Russian officials who are guilty of human rights abuses. And Bill Browder joins us in New York this morning. Welcome back to the program, sir.

BILL BROWDER: Great to be here.

GREENE: So Theresa May appeared to try and lay down the law with Russia. Do you think Britain is going to do enough here to change Russia's behavior?

BROWDER: Well, if you listen to the full speech she gave yesterday, she said one concrete thing and three statements of intent. The concrete thing was to kick out these 23 diplomats. And the three statements of intent - we're going after, you know, we will use all of our tools to go after bad guys, et cetera. I've been living in Britain for 29 years, and my experience is that they're very timid about going after Russians. And we've seen this after the murder of Alexander Litvinenko with nuclear poison in 2006. There was effectively no consequence other than a few expulsions. And so in my opinion, nothing is going to change unless they actually start freezing assets of Russian officials.

GREENE: You want to see proof in the pudding that they're actually going to do something, you're saying. We had Lord Peter Ricketts on the show yesterday. He's a former British diplomat. And he said you can't out-punch Vladimir Putin. He will always find the harder punch. Is that just the reality? I mean, there is nothing that Britain can do that might not be, you know, overly dramatic and could cause problems in other ways?

BROWDER: Well, there's a famous British politician who - Neville Chamberlain - who basically said the same thing about Hitler. Basically, that that philosophy means that you just try to appease Putin, which he's unappeasable. He just looks for weakness. And so there is one huge thing which Britain has - a huge bit of leverage they have over Russia, which is that all Russian gangsters and corrupt government officials all buy expensive properties in London. You can just see them walking the streets everywhere. And they like London because they feel safe there. They like London because their property is safe there. And that is the one huge leverage that Britain has that's asymmetric. It's not like a bunch of British officials have properties in Moscow that can be seized.

GREENE: You anger a lot of Russian elites who enjoy their time in the West, and then that would really send a message you're saying. Do you see that as possibly happening, and if not, why not? Why wouldn't you see the British government doing that?

BROWDER: Well, she pretty much said that that was their intent. But as I said, I've seen, you know - your previous guest was more or less saying that they're not going to do it. And so I'm going to be hammering away on them in every possible way to get them to do that. And yesterday, Alexei Navalny, who is the - probably the most popular...

GREENE: Opposition voice in Russia, yeah.

BROWDER: Exactly. He said the same thing as I did. And Marina Litvinenko, the widow of Alexander Litvinenko, said the same thing.

GREENE: What's at stake here? Can you just tell us - remind us of what's at stake in this back-and-forth with Russia in your mind?

BROWDER: Well, basically what Putin is trying to do generally is create so much chaos in the rest of the world that it brings the rest of the world down to him since he's unable to bring Russia up to the levels of us. And that's what he's trying to do with all this crazy stuff - poisoning and interference in elections and all this type of things.

GREENE: You mean in terms of standards - of acceptable standards of behavior, he's trying to drag everyone else down into some other place?

BROWDER: Exactly.

GREENE: All right. Bill Browder is a hedge fund manager and human rights activist and one of the driving forces responsible for the Magnitsky Act talking to us about the current back-and-forth diplomatic row with Russia and the West. Thanks for joining us.

BROWDER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.