The U.S. Should Welcome Talented Individuals Fleeing Russia

By: Alexander Kersten


Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is provoking the flight of some of its most talented citizens. With crippling sanctions and other measures now in place, Russia’s most productive workers increasingly see no future in a nation whose economy is being battered by the international community’s swift economic response against it and where scientific cooperation with researchers in other countries has come to a standstill. The accelerating brain drain from Russia – and to some extent, Belarus – over the past several weeks provides an opportunity for the U.S. to welcome these talented individuals and invite them to participate in America’s innovation economy.

The Russian Brain Drain

Since Russia’s brutal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine began in late February, roughly 4 million Ukrainians have fled to neighboring countries, with millions more displaced internally. Recognizing the scale of this human tragedy, many nations are welcoming the war’s refugees. The European Union is allowing Ukrainian refugees to remain within its member states for up to three years before applying for asylum, while the U.S. recently announced granting Temporary Protected Status for undocumented Ukrainians living in the U.S.

Meanwhile, some 50,000 to 70,000 Russian IT professionals are estimated to have fled their country, with at least another hundred thousand more expected to leave in April. With doors being closed to Russian nationals around the world, those fleeing Russia have gathered in Armenia, Georgia, and the few other nations where Russians may still travel visa-free. For many Russians, their nation’s war with Ukraine has been a tipping point, escalating an already significant outflow of human capital from Russia, stemming from a decade of economic stagnation and demographic decline.

Among those fleeing are talented scientists and tech entrepreneurs. Although notorious for its hacking organizations, Russia had a leading information technology (IT) sector that in 2019 was worth $24.8 billion, employed 1.3 million people, and accounted for 2.7% of its gross domestic product (GDP). In fact, it represented the only significant portion of the Russian economy not reliant on resource extraction. Russia has also traditionally carried a significant role in the global scientific community—a position now threatened as research centers around the world are slashing ties with Russia’s universities and research institutions. 

Human capital flight, or “brain drains,” occurs when a part of the educated population emigrates elsewhere, precipitated by a lack of opportunity, economic hardship, or repression. As Russian President Vladimir Putin cracks down on political dissent and as anti-war sentiment grows more violent, it is likely that many more well educated and entrepreneurially minded Russians will join those who have fled to neighboring countries – with many even attempting to enter the United States via its southern border with Mexico. In an attempt to stem this brain drain, Putin last month prohibited Russians from the leaving the country with more than $10,000 in foreign currency in their possession.
The Benefits of Taking on Russian Émigrés

The U.S. has a unique opening to offer fast-tracked visas to these highly productive Russian knowledge workers. Indeed, the practice of offering residency and expedited work visas to high-skill individuals fleeing war and repression is not new. A parallel can be found from the 1930s, when numerous Jews, intellectuals, and political dissidents fled Nazi Germany to avoid persecution and killings. The U.S. offered citizenship to many of these émigrés, a group that included physicist Albert Einstein and chemist Max Bergmann.

This humanitarian outreach benefited the U.S. economy. A 2011 report by Stanford University found that this action had a significant impact on the history of American innovation. U.S. patent applications increased by 33% immediately after this period, accounting for a 70% overall increase in patent applications in the U.S. These effects only further compounded over the years, raising the overall research quality in U.S. universities and research centers, as U.S. inventors who collaborated with émigrés professors filed patents at markedly higher rates in the 1940s into the 1950s. Patenting is a widely used measure of a strong innovation-based economy.

In addition, when the federal government launched its famous post-war “Endless Frontier” plan to build the U.S. research base, these new arrivals helped the U.S. to establish and maintain leadership in scientific research and development, despite having lagged behind the major European powers just a decade before. By about 1950, Nobel Prizes in physics, chemistry, and medicine were awarded to American scientists at astonishing rates that vastly overtook these former European powers in a trend that continues to this day.

Though unlikely to have a similarly large impact on the U.S.’s already-leading scientific establishment today, there is a strong precedent for welcoming highly skilled émigrés. Providing these Russians sanctuary and a new home to realize their potential, while creating positive ripple effects for U.S. innovation, is a strategic opportunity that the U.S. should not ignore.

Alexander Kersten is a deputy director and fellow with the Renewing American Innovation Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC.

The Perspectives on Innovation Blog is produced by the Renewing American Innovation Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).