Should the United States offer green cards to every Russian with an advanced degree as a way to stop Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and prevent future aggressive actions? That’s the question posed by Robert Zubrin in National Review. Zubrin asserts in his article “Drain Russia’s Brains” that “we can undermine Putin by stealing his technical talent,” a move which could “destroy Russia’s technical capacity and greatly strengthen our own position against both the short-term threat from Russia and the longer-term challenge posed by China.”
Zubrin recommends offering a green card to “any Russian with a technical degree” who wishes to move to the United States. Like many immigration proposals, this may seem like a no-brainer, but the real effects of such a move could be disastrous for the United States.
Let’s begin by getting a sense of how many Russians this could include. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) 2021 report on the Russian Federation, 62.1 percent of the Russian population aged 25-64 has a tertiary (i.e. college) education. The World Bank lists Russia’s population aged 15-64 as 95,294,313. A back-of-the-napkin calculation shows over 59 million in that age group with tertiary education. This is not an apples-to-oranges comparison given that there are 15-24 year olds in the total population estimate, but the broader point remains true: there are tens of millions of Russians with tertiary education who could qualify.
Importing tens of millions of college-educated Russians in an effort to starve Russia – the world’s 9th most populated country – is not a realistic or serious proposal. The numbers do not make sense. The United States – which already struggles to process a regular intake of 1 million or so immigrants a year – could not withstand the bureaucratic stresses of importing millions of college-educated Russians, to say nothing of the illegality due to per-country caps in the Immigration and Nationality Act. And, due to Russia’s sheer size, importing even thousands of Russians (as we already do) makes no meaningful impact on Russia’s ability to educate and train future technical specialists.
But for the sake of Zubrin’s argument, let’s assume that the U.S. could pull off such a move. Would we want to?
First, there are significant national security concerns. Hostile states such as Russia, China, and Iran already send thousands of students and researchers to the United States every year. Our own intelligence community warns about the threat posed by foreign intelligence and military agencies sponsoring students and researchers in the U.S. in order to gain access to sensitive industry and military secrets. If the United States made such an overt appeal to Russian researchers to “defect” to the U.S., we can be sure that Russia would be many steps ahead of us in ensuring that their spies end up benefitting from such an action.
This also greatly underestimates the degree to which technical specialists within Russia may support Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in particular, and Putin in general. As in China, top Russian scientists, academics, and specialists may rise to their position because of their relationship to Russia’s ruling class and government, not in spite of it. This is not the case for every single person, but it is a consideration that the West must take into account, given the reality of Russian society.
But on the other hand, that is not the case for every college-educated Russian, and no doubt many would jump at the opportunity to leave Russia for the United States. However, questions remain. For those opposed to Putin, why would we deprive Russia’s pro-democracy movement by removing people who could make a difference in that country? Putin, like the Castros in Cuba and Xi Jinping in China, would love nothing more than to rid Russia of intelligent and educated people opposed to his rule.
Finally, what impact would this have on American workers? American tech workers and STEM graduates already compete against scores of cheaper, foreign labor – importing more foreign labor at a time when the U.S. economy continues to struggle would be a slap in the face to millions of qualified American workers.