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Russians fleeing Putin need our help

Eugene Rumer is the 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 a time of crisis. It has imposed unprecedented sanctions on Russia for its barbaric attack on Ukraine. It has been equally resolute in its support for Kyiv, with weapons, supplies and billions of dollars flowing to aid the country’s fight against its aggressor and relieve the suffering of millions of refugees and displaced persons.  

In this outpouring of compassion and generosity, however, one group fleeing Russian President Vladmir Putin’s murderous regime has been mostly overlooked: Russians who can no longer live by their governments’ lies and have taken the fateful step of leaving their country. They need and deserve our support too. Urgently.  

The Russians fleeing Putin’s regime are among the most creative, vibrant and independent-minded members of their country’s society. Not all of them can have the remarkable courage of Alexei Navalny — the corruption fighter and Putin critic just sentenced to yet another fabricated long 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 columnists” and the need for society to cleanse itself mean that refugees from his regime may not be able to return home for years, possibly decades. They will need 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 aid, assistance with resettlement in their new homelands and residence and work permits. As they found new homes in their adopted countries, they gave back to them. Just think of ballet great Mikhail Baryshnikov, Nobel laureate 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 the number at 30,000 in Georgia, 14,000 in Turkey, tens of thousands more in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Armenia. The actual numbers are likely to be much higher. These countries are already coping with the immediate fallout from the war in Ukraine — with higher food and energy prices — and have few, if any resources to help refugees from Russia.  

Europe, however, has long been the refuge for dissidents fleeing Russia, escaping persecution by czars, communists and Putin’s strongmen. Yet as the Russian leader’s battalion tactical groups rolled into Ukraine and artillery shells exploded in Kharkiv, Kyiv and Mariupol, Russia’s ties to Europe were being cut.  

Most airlines have now cancelled flights to and from Russia. Those who are able to leave the country for the handful of destinations still open to them — Turkey, Israel, several capitals of former Soviet states — are leaving with only what they can fit in a suitcase. Many are harassed by Russian border guards, and some, unable to get a plane or train ticket out of the country, are crossing the border on foot 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 mostly been put off-limits by Western sanctions, their credit cards, issued by banks in Russia, no longer work abroad.  

Thus far, senior U.S. officials have spoken eloquently about the need to distinguish between Putin’s regime and Russians themselves. But as anti-Russia sentiments run high in many countries, and some Russian exiles are ostracized simply for speaking Russian, it is especially important for Western leaders to continue emphasizing that they don’t consider Putin’s war to be “the Russian people’s war.”  

In threatening Russia’s best and brightest with persecution, Putin is is shutting the door on 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 from Putin and help them resettle. What better way to demonstrate our understanding and show support for those who refuse to live by Putin’s lies than by welcoming them?  

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