Opinion | Another economic weapon to deploy against Russia: steal all its talent

I don’t mean attacking the Russian people. I mean welcoming them here, particularly if they have significant economic and national security value to Russia.

We should start by expediting the most compelling humanitarian cases in the region. In Russia, these include dissidents and journalists risking their necks to challenge Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked war. But we should also actively court those who might be less political: the technical, creative, high-skilled workers upon whom Russia’s economic (and military) fortunes depend.

An estimated 50,000 to 70,000 IT specialists alone have recently left, according to a Russian technology trade group, which predicts another 100,000 might leave by the end of April. Others in the outbound stampede include entrepreneurs, researchers and artists. the pace of this brain drain is especially impressive given how difficult sanctions have made it to buy plane tickets or otherwise conduct transactions across borders, as well as how expensive travel has become. The Russian government hasn’t yet blocked emigration, but it is trying to slow the flow by interrogating those who leave or offering enticements to tech workers who stay.

Russians are fleeing for multiple reasons. Some object to their government’s actions. Many are likely motivated by the threats to their livelihoods and freedoms, resulting from both Western sanctions and Putin’s domestic crackdown. Day-to-day work has become more challenging, foreign-based tech firms have pulled out of the country, and basic websites have been blocked. Getting paid has also become difficult, thanks to sanctions affecting the financial system.

If a worker’s compensation is tied to an employer’s (tanking) stock price, even worse.

“Lots of people are not ideological; they just want an opportunity for a good life,” says Stuart Anderson, executive director of the National Foundation for American Policy, a nonpartisan think tank that focuses on immigration and trade. “They see that as extremely difficult to do in Russia right now.”

Russian self-exiles are mostly flooding into nearby countries such as Turkey, Armenia and Georgia, but we could smooth their pathway to the United States. Congress already has one blueprint: In early February, the House passed the America Competes Act, which would, among other things, increase immigration of entrepreneurs and PhD scientists from around the world (not just Russia). Alternatively, Congress could tailor a measure toward Russian STEM talent, or the Biden administration could make Russians more broadly eligible for refugee status. (We did something similar for people fleeing the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War.)

The Biden administration announced Thursday it will welcome up to 100,000 Ukrainians, which is a good start. Scaling up immigration and refugee admissions is both the right thing to do and in our own interests. Refugees and other emigres have a long history of supercharging US innovation, winning Nobel Prizes and contributing to our national security. These include Soviet defectors during the Cold War and a larger-scale exodus of mathematicians and scientists after the collapse of the Soviet Union. We would benefit from a comparable influx of talent today.

But the prospect of doing this while imminently draining Russia’s talent pool should make the policy even more attractive.

The many Russians contemplating whether to leave or wait out the conflict, or those who have fled to neighboring countries, might revise their plans if they know there are more opportunities to connect with US employers and universities.

We should likewise be aggressively recruiting Russian international students to US universities, contrary to the knee-jerk suggestions of some Democratic congressmen to expel the roughly 5,000 Russian exchange students here. (Among those who would be booted under such a policy: Russian dissident Alexei Navalny’s daughter, a Stanford University student.)

We want these students not only because some of them might stick around after graduation and contribute to the US economy, but also because their studies here expose them to liberal democratic values. If they or other skilled Russian immigrant workers return home one day, they can be emissaries for American goodwill. Educating the world’s talent is a useful diplomatic tool (as China has learned).

No doubt the usual anti-immigrant forces will claim that admitting more Russians would mean inviting spies into our midst. There is already, however, an intricate security screening process for refugees, skilled workers and other visa applicants; we could always add more layers of vetting, too.

Our goal should be to punish Putin while minimizing harm to American consumers and innocent Russians. A convenient way to do that: Offer more Russians a better life, here.

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