As democracies defend Ukraine and themselves against Vladimir Putin’s project of a world governed by ruthless violence, a vital ally is Russia’s own civil society, now effectively crushed within Russia but energetic within the new exile community of anti-war Russians, most of them young and well educated. In what will be years of struggle to evolve a Russia that supports, rather than undermines, a world governed by laws rather than weapons, Russia’s exiled dissidents will be critical. Yet they and others say Western governments have been slow to shift policies — on visas, work permits and the like — that can help Russia’s anti-war dissidents play that role.
Close to a million Russians have fled their country in the 19 months of Putin’s all-out war on Ukraine. Many are relatively apolitical young men seeking simply to avoid conscription into a battle that independent Russian news media estimate has killed 47,000 Russians as of this summer. But many thousands of others form a core of Russia’s civil society and of active Russian resistance to Putin’s violent, authoritarian rule. The largest of these new communities are in former Soviet republics such as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Georgia and Armenia, which are most easily reached by Russians who may lack passports or visas. But such countries are not very safe, they say. Russian journalists and other exiles in Kazakhstan, where an estimated 100,000 new exiles are sheltering, told The Moscow Times this month of Kazakh authorities’ arrests and restrictions among the recent emigrés, sometimes at the request of Russian authorities.
Putin’s ally and deputy head of Russia’s security council, Dmitry Medvedev, has reflected the deadlier threat that Putin’s regime presents to dissident emigrés, last year calling them “traitors who have gone over to the enemy” and who should face wartime justice at the hands of “impeccably inconspicuous people” whom Russia could send abroad for that purpose, Russian independent journalist and analyst Andrei Soldatov has noted.
Among the 14 ex-Soviet republics that Russia refers to as its “near abroad,” the three Baltic States offer Russia’s exiles by far the greatest degree of freedoms — and the Baltic capitals have become centers for Russian independent journalists who fled Kremlin laws, arrests and imprisonment at home to be able to continue reporting on their own country. Yet even there, Russian exiles face political pressures and insecurity, illustrated by Latvia’s revocation of the broadcast license of the influential independent Russian TV channel Dozhd. The channel this year moved its operations to the Netherlands.
How Russia’s Exiles Weaken the Kremlin
Russia analysts debate how deeply the current wave of emigration (Russia’s largest since the aftermath of the Soviet collapse) dents Putin’s ruling apparat. It clearly represents an indelible political rebuke to Putin and his claim that Russians support his war, and some analysts say it helps to drive quiet divisions among the bureaucratic and economic elites who help to sustain his regime.
Even the apolitical portion of this emigration — the men simply fleeing conscription — weakens Russia as a brain drain. Most of the new exiles are young — nearly two-thirds aged below their mid-20s, according to Natalya Lunde of the Free Russia Foundation, a non-profit pro-democracy organization focused on Russia. The emigrés tend to be well educated and technically skilled, Lunde and other experts told a USIP forum discussing the exile community this week. Soldatov notes that an estimated 100,000 of them are information technology specialists whom Moscow would like to bring back home as assets for its war effort, whether by bolstering Russia’s understaffed technology sector in general, or through vital military roles. “A practical question,” Soldatov noted at USIP, “is where do we want them? In Russia writing software for new [attack] drones?” Or stably located outside the country? “We have to be strategic.”
Many other thousands of emigrés will be central to all future efforts at building a more democratic, peaceful Russia in the future, noted Soldatov and others at the forum. These include Russia’s most effective activists and groups fighting the systemic corruption, violence and authoritarianism of Putin’s rule, such as the organization of Russia’s most prominent opposition leader, Alexei Navalny. With Navalny imprisoned in Russia since 2021, his anti-corruption campaign, investigative units and a YouTube broadcast team have moved to the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius. Their online channel, called Popular Politics, multiplied its weekly broadcast hours to Russian online audiences and nearly doubled its staff, amplifying its output far beyond what was possible in Russia. Independent Russian news media now reach Russians, via online virtual private networks and other tactics, from abroad: the website Meduza from Latvia, the Moscow Times from Amsterdam, Ekho Moskvy radio from Berlin, and others.
USIP analyst Mary Glantz is among those arguing for Western attention to protecting and engaging the exiles as an investment in a more peaceful future Russia. “The preservation of authentic Russian voices that oppose Putin’s foreign aggression and domestic authoritarianism is vital,” she said this week. “The Putin regime has fed the people in Russia a steady diet of propaganda about how the West hates them and wants to destroy them. He is presenting himself and his regime as the only thing standing between them and their destruction by the United States and Europe, and he is arguing that his wars of aggression against Ukraine and Georgia are simply defensive exercises.” Against Putin’s pattern of propaganda and disinformation, “the Russian exile community knows the truth and knows how to convey that truth to their friends and family at home,” Glantz said. “Working with them is one of the key ways to ensure that the Russian people are not lost and hostile to the outside world for generations.”
How the West Can Help
Many Russians in exile lack even basic documents, such as passports or visas, for settling or working abroad, and thus are more vulnerable to Russian efforts to reel them back in, notably in the former Soviet republics, according to emigrés such as Yevgenia Albats, the exiled editor of the independent Novoye Vremya (New Times) website. A practical step, she told a USIP audience this summer, is for governments to create a system of international passports similar to the nearly half-million issued by the League of Nations to Russians who fled the Bolshevik Revolution after 1917.
Russians in exile, even the many who take risks to oppose Putin’s policies, also face stigmatization and suspicion because of the horrific, inescapable imagery and evidence of their government’s brutal behavior, say Albats and others. That guilt by association, “the fact that Russians have been ‘cancelled’ … in different parts of the West,” only strengthens Putin, according to Russia scholar Angela Stent, a senior advisor for USIP. So alongside the pragmatic policy and regulatory steps to help emigré Russians build stable lives abroad and alternatives to Putin for Russia’s future, Stent stressed the importance of actively engaging the Russians who have fled Putin’s rule. “The United States should try to provide more opportunities for them to live and work here,” she said in a June interview. “Currently, it’s very difficult for them to get into Europe. The U.S. and its allies should build consistent and structured interactions with them.”