If Robert Ludlum and Bertolt Brecht ever collaborated on a plotline, they might have come up with something like The Browder Effect, which aired on April 13 on Rossiya-1 as a two-hour documentary and follow-up discussion.
In this paranoid rendering, Alexey Navalny, the leader of Russia’s decimated opposition, is an agent of either the CIA or MI6 (or maybe both, it’s never explained) who was recruited in 2006 by William Browder, the CEO of Hermitage Fund and a onetime apologist for Russian President Vladimir Putin who had turned into a prominent Kremlin gadfly. Browder, in this rendering, was himself recruited by MI6 in 1995.
Let’s stop right there for a moment and consider the network that’s putting this out: Rossiya-1, a Russian state television channel, previously has claimed that an Israeli jet shot down MH17, the civilian airliner blasted out of the sky over Ukraine in 2014, and that Syrian rebels staged a chemical weapons attack in Damascus in 2013. In both cases, the preponderance of evidence actually showed Kremlin clients, Ukraine rebels, and Bashar al-Assad, were responsible for the crimes.
Now back to intrigues around The Browder Effect: In the mid-2000s (this is a fact) Browder’s tax attorney, Sergei Magnitsky, uncovered a $230 million tax fraud perpetrated by mobbed-up state officials using hijacked Hermitage Fund subsidiaries; he was then framed for tax evasion, arrested, and tortured to death in a Moscow jail in 2009.
Browder has spent the last seven years trying to bring Magnitsky’s assailants to justice (another fact) or at least stop them from spending their ill-gotten gains in the West. He won legislative sanctions in the U.S. and elsewhere to bar their travel and freeze any assets they might keep in American and European jurisdictions.
Since this is a problem for Putin and his cronies, they have addressed it the way they almost always do when they want to refute facts: by calling it a CIA plot. As usual, “CIA documents” written in hilariously bad English are proffered to portray Putin’s enemies as hirelings of Western security services.
But what’s so interesting about the broadcast of The Browder Effect is that a key source lending ostensible credibility to the allegations is named as Andrew Fulton, a former high-ranking MI6 spy once implicated in a plot to assassinate Slobodan Milosevic. His opinion was presented on air as that of an independent analyst who verifies the authenticity of these dubious documents.
In fact, email correspondence leaked online and independently verified by The Daily Beast by a source who asked to remain anonymous shows that Fulton has been working as a private investigator for Andrey Pavlov, the lawyer for the alleged Russian mafia types accused of committing the crimes the television channel is trying to pin on U.S. and British intelligence.
Evidence unearthed by Magnitsky and other subsequent investigators points to a transnational crime syndicate headed by an ex-convict, Dmitry Klyuev, as the gang behind the Hermitage tax fraud and its violent coverup.
Browder has alleged that Klyuev’s payroll includes past and present officials from Russia’s interior and tax ministries, as well as compromised judges, and officers of the FSB, Russia’s domestic security service which grew out of the KGB.
In 2012, the United States passed legislation named for the dead tax attorney that cited the “Magnitsky List” of implicated state officials. Until the Ukraine and Syria crises, even during the so-called reset period, the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act constituted the Putin government’s single biggest grievance with Washington.
More diplomatic energy was spent by Moscow on efforts to block or penalize passage of the bill than on any other part of bilateral relations with the United States. Russia, for instance, passed its own “counter-Magnitsky” suite of sanctions on U.S. officials and imposed a notorious ban on Americans adopting Russian orphans. But the core of the Putin strategy was to shift the blame completely.
The Kremlin accused Browder of orchestrating both the tax fraud and Magnitsky’s murder (even though the Kremlin also made the obviously contradictory claim that the attorney died tragically of a “heart attack”).
In The Browder Effect, Browder is depicted as no longer just a cynical accomplice to a crime against the Russian people, but now a shadowy agent of Cold War-style intrigue, and it would seem to be the CIA, rather than Russian authorities, that somehow denied Magnitsky life-saving medical treatment in prison. Of course, this stands in marked contrast to what Russia’s own Presidential Council on Human Rights concluded. But the Rossiya-1 documentary is not bothered by such details. The human-rights group wrote that Magnitsky’s “requests for the routine physician’s visit were denied; medications delivered by Magnitsky’s mother were not accepted or even sent to another cell. These and many other facts discovered by the public inquiry suggest not only the negligence of medical personnel of the Butyrka prison, but criminal failure to provide aid to the detainee, i.e., violation of the right to life.”
According to Rossiya-1, Browder, codenamed “Solomon,” has been working for MI6 since 1995. In 2006, he supposedly recruited Navalny, codenamed “Freedom,” and proceeded to disburse upwards of $1.5 million to him. With that slush fund, Navalny was supposed to engage in minority shareholder activism to expose graft in state-owned companies such as the energy giant Gazprom. Navalny also was supposed to focus on Russian officials such as General Prosecutor Yuri Chaika. He has a vast family fortune which Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation suggested, in a December YouTube video exposé that went viral, was obtained through illegal means. Some of Browder’s CIA/MI6 payments to his Russian pointman (naturally) got funneled through the Moscow Helsinki Group, a Soviet-era human-rights monitor. Like many conspiracy theories, this one seeks to wrap all of Putin’s enemies into one neatly bound package.
But Rossiya-1’s “evidence” rests on supposedly leaked documents, featuring ostensible CIA and MI6 emails and intercepted Skype conversations between Browder and Navalny.
Most of these are produced in English-language snippets that read like Borat trying to use Google Translate.
“Dear Mr. Browder!” Navalny is said to respond when Browder introduces himself on Skype. “Good afternoon. I am glad to meet you, even in this way. I am pleased with your attention, but do not really understand why you need me, and how we can cooperate.” Browder also asks Navalny to call him “William,” whereas anyone who has ever spoken to him, such as your humble correspondent, or looked at the book cover for his memoir Red Notice, knows that Browder goes by “Bill.” An email address belonging to the hedge fund manager is also listed in one screen-captured email as “firstname.lastname@example.org.” That account bounced back for me when I tried it.
Perhaps no inconsistency is as imaginative, however, as having Valerie Plame named as one of the case officers handling “Solomon” and “Freedom” as of 2009, even though she famously resigned from the CIA in 2007 after her cover was blown by the Bush administration—as she herself reminded the Twitter-sphere when she caught sight of her name floating around in connection with this affair.
Navalny says he plans to sue Rossiya-1 for defamation. In an emailed statement, Browder called the film “crazy” and the claims against him “so outlandish” as to not merit a response. However, his campaign, Justice for Sergei Magnitsky, issued a rebuttal (full disclosure: I am an uncompensated advisory board member on the Justice for Sergei Magnitsky Inter-Parliamentary Group), documenting all the instances in which the dead lawyer requested medical care from prison authorities, only to be ignored.
The campaign also noted that the journalist responsible for the documentary was Evgeniy Popov, “who works for Rossiya-1, and has been sanctioned by Ukraine for his role in the disinformation campaign about the war in Ukraine. Earlier in April, Evgeniy Popov traveled to London to obtain video footage of William Browder’s office there. Police had to be called in because of the disruption he caused.”
So where did these alleged spy docs come from? The master leaker is identified on Rossiya-1 as Sergei Sokolov, the former chief security guard for Boris Berezovsky, the onetime billionaire Russian oligarch who bankrupted himself in exile in England and who is believed to have committed suicide in 2013.
A year later, Sokolov says, he obtained the “CIA documents” from “CIA servers” in Ukraine that he says he managed to smuggle out of the country during the 2014 revolution there.
If, for the sake of argument, we say these documents were not complete fabrications in a fantasist broadcast, then how would Sokolov know they were genuine products of the Central Intelligence Agency?
That’s where Fulton comes on stage.
“So that you understand,” Sokolov says about an hour into the Rossiya-1 panel discussion following The Browder Effect documentary, “We have a forensic study… that was performed for me by an agency headed by Andrew Fulton. He is a well-known British specialist who for a long time headed the analytical department of MI6. This person, more professionally than you or me, knows how documents are written. I have a written study report signed personally by him that the documents are authentic.”
Andrew Fulton is a British ex-diplomat as well as the former chairman of the Scottish Conservatives. His role as an operative for the British Secret Intelligence Service has been reported in the U.K. press for years. It was confirmed in 2000 when he lost his job as coordinator of Glasgow University’s Lockerbie Trial Briefing Unit, which covered the prosecution of Libyan terror suspects accused in the infamous 1988 bombing on Pan Am 103. Fulton was dismissed “following investigations into his MI6 career,” according to the Scottish weekly newspaper, The Sunday Herald. But by then Fulton had long since retired from government service.
In his MI6 days, Fulton reportedly had been posted in East Berlin, Saigon, and New York. He had served as “head of station” in Washington, D.C., and at the peak of his career he was the sixth-most powerful official in the organization, according to The Herald. In 1992, the paper reported, Fulton became the security officer who headed up European operations: “He was one of the MI6 chiefs handed the plans to kill Serb President Slobodan Milosevic.”
Fulton currently chairs GPW & Co., a private investigations firm based in London. Unmentioned by Sokolov or any other media outlets covering The Browder Effect is the fact that GPW & Co. also has been subcontracted by the American white-shoe law firm Debevoise & Plimpton on behalf of its client Andrey Pavlov.
Pavlov is none other than the lawyer of the Klyuev Group. He has spent a small fortune in the United Kingdom waging a PR counteroffensive against accusations made by Browder against him, mainly to keep his name off any impending Magnitsky legislation in Europe. So far, he’s had little success: a nonbinding European parliamentary resolution, urging the EU’s Council of Minister—the policy-making body in Brussels—to sanction Klyuev Group members including Pavlov, was passed in April 2014.
Email correspondence between Pavlov and Debevoise, which was leaked on the Internet and which The Daily Beast has seen, contains a “letter of engagement” between GPW and the London office of the U.S. law firm. It is dated Sept. 26, 2014, and signed by Andrew Wordsworth, a founding partner of GPW.
“We will need to conduct an in-depth investigation of the schemes, the legal proceedings surrounding [the allegations made against Pavlov] and the involvement and makeup of the so-called ‘Klyuev Organised Criminal Group,’ of which your client is accused of being a part,” Wordsworth writes. He further explains that he will oversee the Pavlov investigation while also drawing on “the experience of my Partners and Chairman Andrew Fulton.”
GPW’s retainer was £50,000, or $71,000 at today’s exchange rate.
The Daily Beast tried by phone and email to contact Debevoise barrister Robin Lööf, to whom the GPW engagement letter was addressed. He was unavailable for comment. Nor did Rossiya-1 respond to questions related to Fulton’s putative enlistment in The Browder Effect or whether Andrey Pavlov’s business relationship with him was known to the television channel beforehand.
To date, Fulton has not publicly acknowledged any role whatsoever in vetting or confirming Sokolov’s documents, nor has Fulton made it clear whether this was in conjunction with his compensated work on behalf of Pavlov. When reached for comment by The Daily Beast via email, he replied: “Thank you very much for your questions. It is not our policy to comment on speculation regarding the identity of our clients, or our projects. I’m sorry not to be more helpful.”