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The US can help Putin lose the war — for Russia’s future

President Biden has a rare opportunity to hurt Vladimir Putin’s Russia and help Team USA at the same time. He has already announced a humanitarian initiative to allow 100,000 Ukrainian refugees to come to the U.S. As a complement to this program, the administration should create 100,000 special Scientific Freedom visas to attract superstars from Russia to come to the U.S. and show Putin and those who stick with him what free individuals in an open society can create.

In the new reality of a globalized world, talented individuals can vote with their feet to pursue their dreams outside of their home countries. These individuals are the principal drivers of scientific and technical progress, economic growth, and cultural imagination. Thus, keeping their allegiance poses a major challenge for each national government. Unless governments can make living in their societies sufficiently rewarding, their stars will choose to leave for a better life elsewhere.

Currently, many of the millions of extraordinarily able, mathematically trained, and technically competent Russians are appalled by what Putin is doing — not only to Ukraine but to their own country. Watching Russia’s military bomb Ukrainian cities into rubble, they recognize Putin’s atrocities for precisely what they are. Moreover, as they see Putin and his supporters being “canceled” and becoming pariahs in the civilized Western world, they must be thinking about themselves. As they do so, they are becoming as enthusiastic about being tarred by Putin’s brush as were financier Jeffrey Epstein’s associates when he was exposed as a pedophilic predator.

Since Putin came to power two decades ago, more than 2 million Russians have left the country in what has been called the “Putin Exodus.” Since Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, hundreds of thousands of additional Russians have fled — many of whom are in the tech sector now trying to work remotely from neighboring countries. These include some of Russia’s great minds. The United States should actively recruit from this talent pool as vigorously as college basketball coaches recruit for their teams.

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Over the decades, Russians have been a major source of technical talent for the U.S. After the 1917 Russian revolution, Igor Sikorsky, an engineer and a pilot, left Russia in search of economic opportunity. Once settled in the U.S., he invented and built the world’s first helicopter for the U.S. military to use in World War II. After escaping anti-Semitic persecution in the Soviet Union, in 1979 Sergey Brin arrived in the U.S. at the age of 6. By the time he was 25, he had dropped out of a doctoral program at Stanford and co-founded Google. Now the fourth most valuable company in the world, Alphabet employs tens of thousands of Americans. It is also the global leader in the technology likely to have the greatest effect on economics and security in the 21st century: artificial intelligence. 

If only one of each 10,000 recipients of the Scientific Freedom visa succeeded in following in Brin’s footsteps, the U.S. could have 10 more next generation Googles. Over half of America’s billion-dollar startups in the past 20 years have been founded by immigrants.

After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, a wave of Russian PhDs in mathematics came to the U.S. On average they have published 20 more papers than their American counterparts, and their papers have received, on average, 143 more citations. Six Russians have won the Fields Medal — the equivalent of the Nobel prize for math. Each of them did so while working in the West.

As CIA Director Bill Burns has said, the technology race is the “main arena for competition and rivalry with China.” With a population four times the size of the U.S., China produces four times more bachelor’s students in STEM and is on track to graduate twice as many STEM PhDs annually by 2025. The “secret sauce” that made America the world leader in science and technology is its unique ability to attract and retain talent from all 7.9 billion people on Earth. While fewer than 2,000 individuals have become naturalized Chinese citizens over the past two decades, the U.S. has welcomed more than 10 million new Americans over the same period. The “Million Talents Program” discussed here in September presented a plan to recruit 1 million highly talented researchers before the end of President Biden’s first term. The 100,000 Scientific Freedom visas should be icing on the cake of that effort.

Putin’s most fatal error in launching his brutal war of aggression against Ukraine is that he has written a Putin-led Russia out of the civilized Western global community. The U.S.- and European Union-led economic sanctions, the mass exodus of international companies, and the decision by Germany and other European countries to stop importing Russian oil and gas are crippling Russia’s economy. As they see Putin’s push and America’s pull attracting the best and brightest of Russia’s next generation, we can hope that patriotic members of Russia’s governing class will conclude that Putin is an intolerable threat to Russia’s future.

Graham Allison is the Douglas Dillon Professor of Government at Harvard Kennedy School. He was assistant secretary of Defense under President Clinton and special adviser to the Secretary of Defense under President Reagan. Among his books, “Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe,” now in its third printing, was selected by the New York Times as one of the 100 most notable books of 2004.

Tags Bill Burns Joe Biden Russia Sergey Brin talent tech sector Ukrainian refugee crisis Vladimir Putin

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File - A Chevrolet Bolt is displayed at the Philadelphia Auto Show, Jan. 27, 2023, in Philadelphia. Electric vehicles are far less reliable than gasoline-powered cars, trucks and SUVs, mainly because most automakers are still learning how to build a completely new power system, according to this year's auto reliability survey by Consumer Reports.(AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)
File - A Chevrolet Bolt is displayed at the Philadelphia Auto Show, Jan. 27, 2023, in Philadelphia. Electric vehicles are far less reliable than gasoline-powered cars, trucks and SUVs, mainly because most automakers are still learning how to build a completely new power system, according to this year's auto reliability survey by Consumer Reports.(AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

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In this photo released by the Governor of Sevastopol, Mikhail Razvozhayev telegram channel, a rescuer gestures as he helps people during an evacuation after storm and flooding in Sevastopol, Crimea, Monday, Nov. 27, 2023. A storm in the Black Sea took down power grids and left almost half a million people without power after it flooded roads, ripped up trees and damaged buildings in Crimea, Russian state news agency Tass said. (Governor of Sevastopol Mikhail Razvozhayev's telegram channel via AP)
In this photo released by the Governor of Sevastopol, Mikhail Razvozhayev telegram channel, a rescuer gestures as he helps people during an evacuation after storm and flooding in Sevastopol, Crimea, Monday, Nov. 27, 2023. A storm in the Black Sea took down power grids and left almost half a million people without power after it flooded roads, ripped up trees and damaged buildings in Crimea, Russian state news agency Tass said. (Governor of Sevastopol Mikhail Razvozhayev's telegram channel via AP)

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