During the annexation of Crimea, the invasion of eastern Ukraine and the Syrian campaign, Britain was less involved in Ukraine than its European counterparts despite being a member of the UN Security Council. While Merkel and Hollande negotiated the Minsk accords with Ukraine and Russia, the British government originally confined itself to issuing the occasional statement disapproving of invading neighbouring states and the bombing civilians. However in 2015 it sent 75 British trainers to provide medical, logistics, intelligence and infantry skills to an area of Western Ukraine to lower the risk of British and Russian interacting. Furthermore in March 2016 the Armed Forces Minister Penny Mordaunt MP signed a new Defence Agreement with Ukraine which aims to strengthen UK’s relationship with Ukraine by participation in joint exercises, training of Ukrainian Armed Forces personnel and cooperation in the field of military equipment. The UK will also expand its training support through the train the trainer activities.
These commitments are not expensive and are consistent with a government that pursues a mercantilist foreign policy while trying to rein in a vast deficit and avoid expensive foreign entanglements. But there is a way to push back against Mr Putin’s aggression and to bolster the British economy in one elegant policy that will cost next to nothing.
Mr Putin’s adventures are wildly popular in Russia, but there is one section of the population that is markedly less enthusiastic, which is the educated professional class. It is true that some bankers, doctors, artists and professors are staunchly behind the Kremlin, but a great many are not. Anecdotal evidence from conversations with middle class Russians confirms this, as do a raft of reports of a ‘Russian brain drain’ since Crimea. In a state captured by the siloviki class of secret policemen and their client oligarchs, the middle class is everywhere in retreat. Last year the Institute of Modern Russia issued a report on the subject that eloquently describes the situation:
When we talk about the qualitative character of today’s emigration, the number of people leaving the country fades into insignificance. Today, it is highly educated and entrepreneurially inclined people who are leaving Russia.
But the numbers are still striking:
In late 2014, the Russian Federal State Statistics Service (Rosstat) published Russian population migration data covering the period from January to August 2014. The report at once attracted the attention of journalists: it showed that in the first eight months of 2014, 203,600 people left Russia [net], compared to the 186,400 who left over the course of 2013. When the final numbers are tallied, the number of Russians who emigrated in 2014 will likely surpass the record high of 1999, when the country officially “lost” around 215,000 people.
There is every likelihood that the numbers for 2015 are higher still. The numbers of Russians coming to the UK is modest because it is currently difficult for them to come, meaning that they are more likely to end up in countries like Latvia and the Czech Republic.
Among this class of Russians there are many motivations for leaving. Some are tired of the endemic corruption that prevents them from advancing on merit. Others face marginalization or outright persecution for their political views. The Russian state does little to disguise its hostility towards homosexuals and minorities from the Caucasus. But among the subsections with the strongest motivation to leave are entrepreneurs. Thousands of Russian business owners languish in jails, victims of raids on their businesses by well-connected thugs. Some are released after a brief detention, once they have agreed to sign their businesses over to the raiders; others are less fortunate. Most estimates put the number of entrepreneurs in jail for ‘economic crimes at 100,000, or up to 10% of the prison population.
These Russian professionals are eminently suited to long-term assimilation in the UK and the influx of scientists, entrepreneurs and tech experts would add immeasurably to the country’s economic power. In the Cold War Congress passed the Jackson-Vanik Amendment to the US Trade Act, which imposed trade penalties on the USSR for restricting emigration. In particular, Jackson-Vanik had the effect of easing the emigration of Soviet Jews. There is no doubt that the resulting movement of hundreds of thousands of Soviet Russians to the West – especially to the US – was a net loss to the moribund USSR and gain to the West. A new, British incarnation of this legislation would not need to overcome any barrier on the Russian side, but merely to lower barriers on the British side. A new visa category could be created for Russians and Belarussians whereby, after an interview and some background checks, suitable families would be issued temporary residency, to be made permanent in the absence of any misbehaviour on arrival.
We are frequently told that the British economy is in need of immigration. Socially and economically, Russian mathematicians are surely beneficial to a Britain that continues to experience a brain drain of highly skilled workers.
At the same time, it might be worth taking a closer look at the credentials and sources of wealth of some of the super-rich, pro-Kremlin Russians already in London. An exchange of one oligarch out for every thousand Russian professionals in would be an outstanding bargain.
Finally, the policy would have the virtue of turning Mr Putin’s assymetric warfare back at him. One of the reasons that the Russian air force is indiscriminately bombing civilians in Syria is to drive millions of desperate people through Turkey and into the EU. There, the Kremlin hopes, they will undermine the liberal consensus of the EU and hasten the bloc’s disintegration; this policy is obviously already bearing fruit. Let us, then, play our own game of population movement. So far Russia is weathering the storm of sanctions and low oil prices. If Russia’s long-suffering middle classes were to decamp en masse – the very people who keep the machine working – it might give Mr Putin cause to reflect on his actions.
Neil Barnett is the founder and CEO of Istok Associates, an intelligence and investigation consultancy specialising in Central & Eastern Europe and the Middle East. He is a former foreign correspondent and is a research fellow at the CPS.