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Analysis | To Hobble Putin, Accelerate the Brain Drain

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President Joe Biden wants to make it easier for Russian scientists, engineers and technology professionals to move to the U.S. by temporarily suspending the need for a sponsoring employer. It’s a welcome move, and long overdue.

By streamlining the system to accelerate an already a damaging rate of departures from Russia, Washington will erode President Vladimir Putin’s ability to sustain his invasion of Ukraine and his repressive machinery at home, undermine crucial Kremlin propaganda, and boost the U.S. economy — which has gained in the past from precisely such efforts.

Russia has experienced multiple emigration waves over the past century or so, through the 1990s when some 2.5 million left amid an economic collapse. Putin’s arrival initially promised increased prosperity, but departures have increased again since 2012, the year he returned for a third term, signaling an authoritarian turn. Recent migrants have often cited politics as their reason for departure; they are by and large educated, well-off and liberal. They’re also young: Nearly half of 18- to 24-year-olds last year expressed a desire to move abroad, along with a third of 25- to 39-year-olds.

The pace of that brain drain has only increased since the invasion of Ukraine, which prompted wide-ranging sanctions and the departure of a string of foreign employers and outside investors. The Russian Association for Electronic Communications said in March that 50,000 to 70,000 tech workers had left, with 100,000 more expected to leave last month. The total number is likely to be several times that.

For the Putin regime, that’s an unmitigated disaster. Even before the war, officials had estimated the country’s shortage of tech workers at between 500,000 and a million, rising to 2 million by 2027. Science had suffered in a repressive political environment in which funding is tight, overseas collaborations risky, and treason charges not uncommon. Research and development amounts to just 1% of Russia’s output — less than half the figure in most market economies — with much of that accounted for by the military, or oil and gas. As more high-skilled workers depart, expect all this to worsen.

The Kremlin has long dismissed such emigrants as liberal troublemakers. But it’s clear the sharp rise is now alarming those at the top. Unable to introduce Soviet-style exit bans for IT workers without creating a backlash, Putin has instead offered incentives, including tax holidays, salary boosts and subsidized mortgages for tech professionals, plus an all-important exemption from conscription. So far, none of this seems to be stemming the flow.

For the U.S., one benefit of welcoming these high-skilled workers is that it will undermine a key tenet of Kremlin propaganda, which holds that the Western alliance merely hopes to harm the Russian people. It’s been a powerful message. But eventually widening the welcome to other professions, along with travelers and students, would further refute this line, while supporting the creation of a new, post-Putin intelligentsia open to other ideas for the future. During the Soviet Union, travel abroad and exposure to the West was a major contributor to the pressure that eventually forced increased openness.

A second and more important rationale is economic. By helping Russians with coveted skills to resettle, Biden will only impede Putin’s economic prospects while boosting his own. Initiatives such as the Soviet Scientists Immigration Act of 1992 brought thousands of much-needed scientists and engineers to the U.S., along with an influx of skills, initiative and new ideas. More than half of America’s top tech companies were founded by immigrants or their children — many of them Russian.

Professional migration is a powerful tool that makes the most of U.S. soft power and, in time, is worth considering for other troublesome governments left vulnerable from brain drains. Human capital, after all, is the hardest to replace.

More From Other Writers at Bloomberg Opinion:

Putin’s Parades Can’t Hide a Missing Victory: Clara Ferreira Marques

Europe’s Ban on Russian Oil Has to Be Realistic: Julian Lee

Putin’s Pariah Status Isn’t Slowing His Copycats in Europe: Pankaj Mishra

The Editors are members of the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

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