- "He stepped into Libya, into Syria, he's stepping into Iran and Iraq — he wants to be able to be a kingmaker," Bill Browder told CNBC at the World Economic Forum.
As the U.S. gradually — or in some cases, abruptly — withdraws from foreign interventionism in the Middle East, Russian President Vladimir Putin is taking advantage of the ensuing vacuum to increase his country's geopolitical footprint, Hermitage Fund CEO Bill Browder said at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Tuesday, echoing the observations of many regional analysts.
Asked on CNBC's "Street Signs Europe" if the Middle East was witnessing "Putin's moment," Browder, who is a fierce critic of the Russian leader, replied "Everywhere is his moment."
"He stepped into Libya, into Syria, he's stepping into Iran and Iraq — he wants to be able to be a kingmaker, even if his country is not all that powerful."
The conversation followed developments in recent months and years during which Russia expanded its presence in several Middle Eastern countries; most obviously Syria, where Moscow's military intervention to support Syrian dictator Bashar Assad turned the nine-year-long civil war decisively in Assad's favor.
More recently, Russian troops swooped into northern Syria where U.S. forces had been working alongside Kurdish militias fighting ISIS. President Donald Trump's sudden announcement in October to withdraw from that conflict, citing his campaign pledge to bring American troops home from Middle East wars, drew harsh criticism from both Republicans and Democrats but was praised by the Kremlin.
"What Putin is trying to do is he's putting his foot down in the Middle East wherever he can," Browder said. "He's trying to create a situation where he has some leverage — and by Trump, for example, withdrawing from northern Syria, that created the opportunity for Russians to literally take over U.S. bases. Whenever he sees that opportunity, he takes it."
Russian mercenaries from the country's notorious Wagner Group have also appeared in Libya, joining a raft of countries backing rival groups in the North African state's civil war nine years after the U.S. helped topple longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi
A few hundred of the Russian fighters are on Libya's front lines while most are in advisory roles supporting Libyan rebel Gen. Khalifa Hifter, who launched an offensive against the country's U.N.-backed government in Tripoli last April. Country analysts say that the Russian presence has also swung the fighting in Hifter's favor.
Putin also made an impromptu visit to the Syrian capital of Damascus to meet with Assad after the U.S. launched a drone strike in Iraq that killed top Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani. His administration condemned the killing, taking advantage of regional anger to undermine the U.S. presence in the Middle East, something the Kremlin routinely criticizes.
For Trump's part, he disagrees with his critics in Congress who say the U.S. should maintain a robust footprint in the region. Trump has in the past declared that Russia and other countries could "have Syria," calling the country a "mess" and vowing to bring American military personnel home, despite announcing the deployment of as many as 14,000 fresh U.S. troops to the Gulf region since May amid rising tensions with Iran.
Browder, a U.S.-born financier and rights activist who founded Hermitage Capital Management and was once Russia's largest foreign investor, spearheaded the Magnitsky Act, which enables sanctions on officials involved in corruption and human rights abuses.
The sanctions have frozen the assets of some of Russia's most powerful, including close associates of Putin, giving Browder a reputation as "Putin's No. 1 enemy." Browder, now a U.K. citizen, has been personally named in Putin's speeches and is a frequent target of Russian-issued Interpol Red Notices.
The Magnitsky Act is named after Browder's former lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who uncovered wide-ranging fraud and corruption by Russian government officials and died in a Russian prison, with forensic evidence showing signs of battery. The Kremlin has rejected the accusations, claiming that Browder himself ordered his lawyer's death, which the investor and Western officials have dismissed as ludicrous.