The Volokh Conspiracy

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New Wave of Russian Emigration is an Opportunity for the West—but one we Seem Likely to Flub

Opening the door to Russians fleeing Putin is the right thing to do on both moral and pragmatic grounds.


The Russian-language sign in this image says "exit."


Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine and accompanying increase in repression within Russia itself kicked off a wave of Russian emigration, in addition to a massive flow of refugees from Ukraine. As a recent CNBC article explains, the initial wave has now been augmented by additional people, many of them skilled professionals in high tech and related fields:

Vladimir, whose surname has been removed due to the sensitive nature of the situation, is part of what he considers Russia's "second wave" of migration following the war. This includes those who took longer to prepare to leave the country — such as people with businesses or families who wanted to let their children finish the school year before leaving….

A "first wave" of artists, journalists and others openly opposed to Putin's regime felt they had to leave the country immediately or risk political persecution for violating the Kremlin's clampdown on public dissent.

"A lot of people got notices saying that they were traitors," said Jeanne Batalova, senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute….

But as the war rages on, more Russians are deciding to pack up and leave.

"The way migration works is that once the flow begins and people start finding out how to do things — get a flat, apply for asylum, find a job or start a business — that prompts more people to leave. It becomes a self-fulfilling cycle," Batalova said….

There is no concrete data on the number of Russians who have left the country since the start of the war. However, one Russian economist put the total at 200,000 as of mid-March.

That figure is likely to be far higher now, according to Batalova, as tens of thousands of Russians have relocated to Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, Israel, the Baltic states and beyond….

In the tech sector alone, an estimated 50,000 to 70,000 professionals left in the first month of the war, with a further 70,000 to 100,000 expected to follow soon thereafter, according to a Russian IT industry trade group.

The tech sector is one among several professional services industries that have seen an exodus of talent from Russia's larger cities, as people reject the war and worsening business conditions.

Scott Antel, an international hospitality and franchise lawyer who spent almost two decades working in Moscow, has so far this year helped five friends relocate from Russia to Dubai, in several cases purchasing properties for them, sight unseen, to expedite the move.

"You're seeing a massive brain drain," said Antel, whose departing friends span the legal and consulting professions, as well as hospitality and real estate. "The disruption for talented people is enormous and is going to be even more so."

This outflow represents a major opportunity for the West. For reasons I have outlined in detail before (see here, here, and here), opening our doors to Russians fleeing Putin is the right thing to do for a combination of moral, economic, and strategic grounds. Morally, it is wrong to keep out people fleeing an increasingly oppressive tyranny. Economically, we could use the extra production and innovation these immigrants can provide—especially since they are disproportionately professionals in science and high tech. Strategically, this can impose a "brain drain" on Putin's war machine, and strengthen our hand in the war of ideas against the authoritarian nationalism of Russia and China (a point American policymakers readily understood during the Cold War, when they welcomed refugees from communist states). The possible risk of espionage by Russian migrants is low and can be addressed by measures other than exclusion.

If the US and other Western nations were to open their doors, the scale of migration might become even larger than it is now, as places like the US and Canada are likely to be more attractive destinations for many Russians, than the limited options currently available. In addition, many emigrant Russians—particularly those in scientific and tech fields—could potentially be more productive in the West than in the much poorer and less advanced nations that are the only available options for most today (if they have any options at all).

In earlier posts (see here and here), I have also addressed the argument that opening the door to Russian and Ukrainian refugees is unfair so long as the US and other Western nations are less open to those fleeing violence and tyranny elsewhere. For those who care about consistency, I have a long record of also advocating refuge for victims of war and and oppression from elsewhere in the world (see also this recent post about Chinese fleeing that country's brutal Covid lockdowns).

Sadly, the track record so far suggests the US and other Western nations are likely to miss this opportunity. Since Putin's invasion began in February, many states have become more open to Ukrainian refugees (though more remains to be done on this front). But very little has changed when it comes to Russians fleeing Putin.

In May, President Biden asked Congress to take the very limited step of  authorizing Russians with a master's or doctoral degree in science, technology, engineering or mathematics to obtain a US visa without first getting an employer to sponsor them. But little seems to have come of this. And, obviously, in Russia -as in the West—many highly productive people—including in the tech industry—do not have or need graduate degrees. Others could get them after coming to the West rather than before. Other Western governments have also been dragging their feet on this issue.

Hopefully, Western governments will take more advantage of this obvious opportunity than they have so far. But I am not as hopeful as I wish could be.