When the World Wasn’t Looking: How Authoritarian States Have Taken Advantage of the Covid-19 Crisis

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When the World Wasn’t Looking: How Authoritarian States Have Taken Advantage of the Covid-19 Crisis

14th May 2020 @ 3:00 pm - 4:00 pm

Covid-19 has left a trail of destruction everywhere in its wake, but one of its most pernicious impacts is likely to be in the advances made by authoritarian states – and putative authoritarians – against their own populations but also against the free world.

Human rights violations and suppressions of dissent that would normally spark global outrage have gone largely unnoticed given the understandable pre-occupation of governments with pandemic mitigation. Meanwhile, the free world has faced a torrent of fake news and disinformation originating from authoritarian countries keen to take advantage of the confusion that Covid-19 has engendered.

In order to explore what the free world may have missed the Henry Jackson Society is delighted to welcome three passionate defenders of the democratic order and opponents of autocracy to debate the issues: Bill Browder, Laura Rosenberger and Dr Daniel Twining. Using their knowledge of authoritarian state activity and expertise in the areas of human rights advancement and democracy promotion, our guests will take us through latest developments – and most importantly – what we can do about them.



Bill Browder is the founder and CEO of Hermitage Capital Management, which was the investment adviser to the largest foreign investment fund in Russia until 2005, when Bill was denied entry to the country and declared a “threat to national security” as a result of his battle against corporate corruption.

Following his expulsion, the Russian authorities raided his offices, seized Hermitage Fund’s investment companies and used them to steal $230 million of taxes that the companies had previously paid. When Browder’s lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, investigated the crime, he was arrested by the same officers he implicated, tortured for 358 days, and killed in custody at the age of 37 in November 2009.

Since then, Browder has spent the last 5 years fighting for justice for Mr. Magnitsky. The Russian government exonerated and even promoted some of the officials involved so Browder took the case to America, where his campaigning led to the US Congress adopting the ‘Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act’ in 2012, which imposed visa sanctions and asset freezes on those involved in the detention, ill-treatment and death of Sergei Magnitsky (as well as in other human rights abuses). This law was the first time the US sanctioned Russia in 35 years and became the model for all subsequent US sanctions against Russia. Browder is currently working to have similar legislation passed in Magnitsky’s name across the European Union.



Laura Rosenberger is the director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy and a senior fellow at The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF).  Before she joined GMF, she was foreign policy advisor for Hillary for America, where she coordinated development of the campaign’s national security policies, messaging, and strategy.

Prior to that, she served in a range of positions at the State Department and the White House’s National Security Council (NSC). As chief of staff to Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken and as later, then-Deputy National Security Advisor Blinken’s senior advisor, she counseled on the full range of national security policy. In her role at the NSC, she also managed the interagency Deputies Committee, the U.S. government’s senior-level interagency decision-making forum on our country’s most pressing national security issues.

Laura also has extensive background in the Asia-Pacific region, particularly Northeast Asia. She served as NSC director for China and Korea, managing and coordinating U.S. policy on China and the Korean Peninsula, and in a variety of positions focused on the Asia-Pacific region at the Department of State, including managing U.S.–China relations and addressing North Korea’s nuclear programs. She also served as special assistant to Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Bill Burns, advising him on Asia-Pacific affairs and on nonproliferation and arms control issues. Laura first joined the State Department as a presidential management fellow.


Dr Daniel Twining joined IRI as president in September 2017, where he leads the Institute’s mission to advance democracy and freedom around the world. He heads IRI’s team of nearly 600 global experts to link people and governments, motivate people to engage in the political process, and guide politicians and government officials to be responsive to citizens.

Previously, he served as counselor and director of the Asia Program at The German Marshall Fund of the United States, based in Washington, DC. As counselor, he served on the executive management team that governs GMF’s annual operations; as director of the Asia Program, he led a team working on the rise of Asia and its implications for the West.

Prior to GMF, Twining served as a member of the U.S. Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff, as foreign policy advisor to U.S. Senator John McCain, and as a staff member of the U.S. Trade Representative. He has taught at Georgetown University and served as a military instructor associated with the Naval Postgraduate School.

He holds a BA with highest distinction from the University of Virginia and MPhil & DPhil degrees from Oxford University, where he was the Fulbright/Oxford Scholar from 2004-07. He has been a columnist for Foreign Policy and Nikkei and has served as an advisor to six presidential campaigns.


Event Summary:

In ‘When the World Wasn’t Looking: How Authoritarian States have taken Advantage of the Covid-19 Crisis’ Dr Alan Mendoza chaired a panel of Bill Browder, founder and CEO of Hermitage Capital Management, Laura Rosenberger, director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy, and Dr. Daniel Twining, president of the International Republican Institute, in a discussion of opportunistic authoritarianism. First and foremost, the panellists agreed that the pandemic has facilitated a deepening of trends around democracy and authoritarianism domestically and internationally. Given his experiences in Russia as the largest foreign investor until 2005 when he was deemed a national security threat, Bill Browder outlined how Vladimir Putin has utilised the pandemic as an opportunity to shift Russia’s political system into a totalitarian configuration. Browder explained that Putin is using the measures installed to contain the pandemic to control meetings, public engagement, and to collect data on the Russian public to further these means. He warned that it is likely these measures will continue for far longer than made necessary by Covid-19. Laura Rosenberger explained much of what is going on in Russia in terms of data collection, disinformation, and suppression is simultaneously occurring in China. Indeed, Rosenberger offered that China is borrowing from the Russian toolkit to manage the pandemic, domestically and internationally, as seen by the creation of conflicting conspiracy theories to influence the international discourse. Dr. Twining expanded the discussion to democracy and authoritarianism globally by adding that these trends observed in Russia and China are occurring in smaller pockets of authoritarianism as seen in Azerbaijan, the Philippines, and Cambodia. Movements towards people centred power occurring before coronavirus has been reversed by authoritarian states using the pandemic as a cover to reduce political dissent. Accordingly, the panellists agreed that there is a creeping authoritarianism corrupting global politics.

However, all three panellists agreed that authoritarian states have not been inherently strengthened by the pandemic as many of these moves have come from insecurity created by the pandemic. For example, Browder explained the economic vulnerability Russia is likely to endure due to the State’s dependency on oil and gas for revenue. While Russia has a lower debt to GDP ratio and has currency reserves for rainy days such as these, these means will eventually run out making Putin particularly vulnerable to political unrest. Consequently, Browder predicted it is likely Russia will look for a foreign enemy to use as an impetus for nationalism. Rosenberger offered that China is likely to take a similar strategy, but like Russia, it is unlikely this will occur in the form of a classic military operation. However, that does not mean an asymmetric option is out of the question. Indeed, China may likely seize the weakened US position in the South China Sea from the pandemic to employ hybrid operations.

The panellists outlined several areas where the public can push back against the creeping authoritarianism characterising the current international system. Dr. Twining offered that now more than ever is parliamentary oversight and free media crucial to reversing these influence operations. He encouraged the public to participate in the bottom-up phenomenon as seen by the volunteering networks emerging to fill gaps in the state’s pandemic response. Rosenberger and Twining argued for national strategies to combat authoritarian information operations. However, both panellists cautioned against strategies that mimic authoritarian strategies. Instead, the solution comes in championing the openness and principles of truth fundamental to democracies. Browder offered two specific fixes to these campaigns in calling social media companies to require verification of new users to prevent the creation of bots and for Facebook to end its political advertisements. Fundamentally, the panellists agreed it is crucial to inform politicians that their constituents are aware of the importance of preserving democracy. The things that happen abroad come to affect Western publics due to the nature of a globalised international system.


14th May 2020
3:00 pm - 4:00 pm


United Kingdom


Henry Jackson Society
+44 (0) 20 7340 4520


Bill Browder


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