The Volokh Conspiracy

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Michael McFaul Makes the Case for Reaching out to the "Russian Diaspora"

A leading US expert on Russia advocates outreach to Putin's Russian opponents and encouraging emigration from Russia. The best way to encourage Russians to leave is to allow more of them to come to the West.


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


In a recent Washington Post article, former US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul advocates a US "diplomatic surge" that includes outreach to the Russian diaspora and encouraging emigration from that country:

Biden or Secretary of State Antony Blinken should appoint a de facto ambassador to the Russian diaspora. Our current efforts in assisting Russians who emigrated to avoid supporting Putin's war are inadequate. We have a national security interest in giving these refugees reasons not to return home. Young men who leave Russia today are soldiers who will not be on the battlefield in Ukraine tomorrow. To that end, we should also be working to encourage more emigration.

These ideas makes excellent sense. Russians who emigrate are no longer helping Putin's war machine. And they can instead boost Western economies, including through their disproportionate contributions to scientific and technical innovation. Russian emigration to the West can also bolster our position in the war of ideas against Putin. Russian opponents of Putin and his war, such as Ilya Yashin [who is no relation of mine], have made similar pleas for Western outreach.

But McFaul omits the most effective way to encourage emigration: Letting more Russians come to the West! Currently, Western nations are largely closed to Russian immigration, to the point where even political dissidents sometimes face cruel immigration detention if they try to enter the US.

If we want to improve outreach to the Russian diaspora, opening our doors to Russian migrants is likely to be far more effective than any special ambassador. Actions speak louder than words. Since February 2022, some 1 million Russians have fled the country despite the fact that most have been able to go only to such unappealing destinations as Turkey and Kazakhstan. Many more might leave if they had the opportunity to move to Western nations that can offer far greater freedom and opportunity.

The resolution of Yevgeny Prigozhin's coup against Putin ensures the latter will stay in power for some time to come. Even if Prigozhin had overthrown Putin, it's far from clear that Russia would have ended the war and ceased to be a menace to the West. So long as Russia remains a hostile, illiberal power, the kind of outreach McFaul advocates makes excellent strategic, as well as moral, sense.

I have made the case for dropping barriers to Russian migration in greater detail in previous writings, compiled here. In those pieces, I also addressed various counterarguments, such as claims that Russians should be kept out because they bear collective responsibility for Putin's war.