Eugene Rumer is Director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He left the Soviet Union in 1977.
In most areas, the West has come together with remarkable speed and cohesion in times of crisis. He imposed unprecedented sanctions on Russia for its barbaric attack on Ukraine. It has been equally resolute in its support for Kyiv, with arms, supplies and billions of dollars to help the country fight its aggressor and alleviate the suffering of millions of refugees and displaced people.
In this outpouring of compassion and generosity, however, one group fleeing the murderous regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin has been largely forgotten: Russians who can no longer live by the lies of their government and have made the fateful decision to leave their country. . They also need and deserve our support. Urgently.
Russians fleeing Putin’s regime are among the most creative, dynamic and independent-minded members of their country’s society. Not everyone can have the remarkable courage of Alexei Navalny – the corruption fighter and Putin critic who has just been sentenced to another long, fabricated prison term – but many support him, have taken part in protests and now find themselves in danger of being persecuted by a regime that is implementing ever more vicious measures to suppress civic and political activity.
The Russian president’s rants about the country’s internal enemies, traitors, ‘fifth columns’ and society’s need to cleanse itself mean refugees from his regime may not be able to return home for years or even decades . They will have to build new lives wherever they find themselves, and the West should welcome them.
During the Cold War, refugees from behind the Iron Curtain were welcome in the West. They received financial assistance, assistance with resettlement in their new country of origin and residence and work permits. As they found new homes in their adopted countries, they gave back. Just think of ballet great Mikhail Baryshnikov, Nobel Prize-winning poet Joseph Brodsky or Google co-founder Sergey Brin.
There are few reliable statistics on the number of Russians who have left their country in recent weeks. Various estimates put their number at 30,000 in Georgia, 14,000 in Turkey, tens of thousands more in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Armenia. The actual numbers are probably much higher. These countries are already dealing with the immediate fallout from the war in Ukraine – with higher food and energy prices – and have little or no resources to help refugees from Russia.
Europe, however, has long been the haven for dissidents fleeing Russia, fleeing persecution from czars, communists and Putin strongmen. Yet as the Russian leader’s battalion battle groups pushed into Ukraine and artillery shells exploded in Kharkiv, Kyiv and Mariupol, Russia’s ties to Europe were severed.
Most airlines have now canceled flights to and from Russia. Those who can leave the country for the handful of destinations still open to them – Turkey, Israel, several capitals of former Soviet states – only leave with what they can fit in a suitcase. Many are harassed by Russian border guards, and some, unable to get plane or train tickets out of the country, walk across the border wherever they can.
These exiles need to find new homes and new ways to support themselves. But currency controls imposed by the Russian government have cut off their access to their savings and other sources of support. And now that the Russian banking system has been mostly banned by Western sanctions, their credit cards, issued by banks in Russia, no longer work abroad.
So far, senior US officials have spoken eloquently about the need to distinguish between Putin’s regime and the Russians themselves. But since anti-Russian sentiments are high in many countries and some Russian exiles are ostracized simply for speaking Russian, it is especially important that Western leaders continue to stress that they do not view Putin’s war as “Russian People’s War”.
By threatening Russia’s best and brightest with persecution, Putin is closing the door to a future in their own country. In addition to welcoming Ukrainian refugees, allies on both sides of the Atlantic should open their doors to those fleeing Putin and help resettle them. What better way to demonstrate our understanding and show our support for those who refuse to live by Putin’s lies than by welcoming them?