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Clever British visa policy could exploit Russian brain drain and weaken Putin | Mikhail Khodorkovsky


Britain has been one of Ukraine’s strongest supporters since Vladimir Putin’s invasion. Whatever the polls say about recent British prime ministers, their rating in Ukraine would be much higher. It is now up to Rishi Sunak to maintain and strengthen Britain’s leadership role in supporting Ukraine’s existential struggle on the front line between freedom and tyranny.

As a grateful guest in this country, waiting for the day when I can return to Russia, I will not tell the government what to do. But as someone who rose to the top of Russia’s energy industry before spending 10 years in prison on politically motivated charges, followed by exile, I may have useful information about Putin, Russia and the region he criminally regards as his imperial stronghold.

Sunak faces complex and interrelated challenges. The war in Ukraine, he declared outside 10 Downing Street, “must be successfully fought to its conclusion”. I agree. And we need to be clear about what constitutes success. Putin’s invaders must be defeated and the sovereignty and territorial integrity of a democratic European state must be preserved. Any conclusion allowing a dictator to redraw maps by force is not a success.

The Prime Minister’s first international call was addressed to President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. I hope that, like his predecessors, he will recognize that if Putin is not defeated in Ukraine he will not stop there, and the long-term pain for the UK and global economy, as well as for security, will be much bigger.

Putin has no war goals that allow for a rational agreement acceptable to states or democratic values. There is no reason for accommodation in the mutual interest of Britain and the West because, declared or not, it is at war not only with Ukraine but with you. Ungrateful, given the years when the West indulged in its kleptocracy, but true.

He is driven by a desire to protect the wealth and power he and his cronies stole from the Russian people, combined with hubristic and fascistic imperial fantasies that belong to a bygone era. His crimes against humanity continue. Russian missiles and Iranian-made drones terrorize Ukrainian civilians and infrastructure. He uses his own as cannon fodder and dehumanizes his victims. If British history teaches anything, it’s that deals with such regimes aren’t worth the piece of paper you come back with.

But Putin is losing, his thugs who first invaded humiliated by Ukraine’s better-motivated forces. Now he is enlisting hundreds of thousands more Russian men. Despite the forced diet of anti-Ukrainian and anti-Western propaganda, many are unwilling to leave their families and risk their lives to commit war crimes. Inner anger will grow, weakening the regime.

Now is not the time to give in to his bluster but to take advantage. As my friend Garry Kasparov says: Putin plays poker, not chess. What steps can Britain take to call its bluff?

First and foremost, Ukraine urgently needs more military aid. Britain led Europe in providing timely and necessary military training and equipment. I hope this will continue. Ukraine needs more weapons to eliminate remote command and logistics centers and to combat the increased use of drones.

Britain has also set an example in terms of sanctions, including against the United States, by systematically freezing the assets of Putin’s collaborators. It must continue. The effectiveness of the new energy sanctions remains to be seen, but I am pessimistic about this tactic as long as energy dependence remains.

By far the most painful cost to the regime is the brain drain. The loss of 30,000 programmers and tens of thousands of contractors and engineers is the greatest blow to the Kremlin’s ability to maintain a technologically advanced war machine.

Ukraine is the first victim of Putin’s war, and its refugees a priority. There has also been an unprecedented exodus of Russians, fleeing in protest. Hundreds of thousands of people had already left before the mobilization last month. Russian intelligence services reported that 260,000 people left in the days that followed. In Russia, opponents of the regime risk their lives and freedom, such as Alexei Navalny, Vladimir Kara-Murza, Andrei Pivovarov and many others who remain imprisoned on false charges.

Among those leaving are many of the most skilled and educated Russians. Britain and Europe need a visa policy that incentivizes and facilitates their rejection of Putin, while punishing the regime. Not only would these Russians contribute to the British economy and other economies, but they would also be crucial in shaping a vision of Russia after Putin and his gang are gone.

In the long term, democratic states need energy and industrial independence. Ukraine stresses the need to wean the economy off hydrocarbons. Sunak declared his support for wind power and renewables – and nuclear power, rejecting historic mistakes made by other European countries. Energy should no longer be left at the mercy of tyrants but is not the only economic sphere subject to blackmail and as China rises Putin is not the only dictator who can hold you to ransom. For long-term economic security, democratic states must regain self-sufficiency in the production of essential industrial goods.

Britain will have an important role to play in rallying support for Ukraine’s rebuilding, holding Russia’s criminal regime to account and creating an enabling environment for a more stable Russia after Putin. Before that, however, Putin must be defeated in Ukraine. I hope that under Sunak’s leadership, Britain will maintain and intensify its commitment to this goal.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, former political prisoner and CEO of Yukos Oil, is the author of The Russian Enigma: How the West Falling for Poutine Power Gambit – and How To fix This.

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