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Opinion

To hurt Putin, steal his top students

Mikhail Kokorich is a Swiss entrepreneur of Russian origin and the CEO of Destinus, a Swiss aircraft company.

PAYERNE, Switzerland — The fight against Russian President Vladimir Putin will be a long one. Sanctions will have their effect. The economy will suffer, incomes will fall, but they will do little to loosen the government’s grip on the media and the country’s no-longer democratic institutions — at least in the short term.

Over the long term, however, there’s plenty that can be done to ease Putin from power and undermine his ability to threaten his neighbors. Much has been written about measures like refusing to buy energy and raw materials from Russia, or cutting the country off from Western technology, especially microelectronics.

But the Putin regime and its military-industrial complex has a crucial weakness that often goes overlooked: the young scientists and engineers who are the future of the country’s technology industry.

Russia is currently experiencing the worst demographic crisis in its history. A shortage of young engineers is the main obstacle to Russia’s technological development — one that is especially acute in the country’s military-industrial complex. If the country were to be deprived of 10 to 20 percent of its most talented young engineers, the consequences over the next decade and more would be catastrophic for the Russian tech sector.

When I started my first space company, Dauria Aerospace, 11 years ago in Moscow, my biggest challenge was staffing. Finding trained, talented young engineers was difficult, and I don’t think the situation has improved in the eight years since I left Russia.

It would be possible to bleed Russia’s technological future by inviting young bachelor’s and master’s engineers and scientists to continue their education in the West. The vast majority of young Russians who leave to study in the West never return to Russia. This has been true since the 16th century, when Czar Boris Godunov sent 18 children of the Russian nobility to Europe to study, only to have them decide to stay.

In recent decades, a massive number of Russian engineering minds have moved to the West, where they have contributed to scientific breakthroughs, won Nobel Prizes and founded billion-dollar companies. All the attempts by the Russian government to lure scientists back, including through large grants, have been futile. In this sense, Russian migration is very different from Chinese migration, which is often circular.

It will be important, however, to attract them overseas while young: Aim at bachelor’s students, graduates of master’s programs, doctoral students. As soon as a young engineer starts working in the Russian military industry, their passport is taken away and they cannot go anywhere.

According to the Russian Ministry of Education, there are currently 4 million students in the country. Of those, engineering and the sciences account for about 800,000, but many of them attend universities of questionable quality. The strongest engineering and science students are clustered in the top 15 to 20 universities, and they number no more than 100,000-150,000 students.

In other words, about 20,000 to 30,000 competent students graduate each year from these universities in the specialties that contribute to the Russian tech sector. Of these, 10 to 20 percent (less than 5,000) are truly excellent students who could become future luminaries. So to catastrophically weaken the future of Putin’s regime, all that is needed is to open up the possibility for a few thousand young people to leave Russia and study in the West. Considering the cost of education, that’s a few hundred million dollars a year — a pittance compared to the possibility of World War III. This is the most decisive step the West can take to undermine Putin’s ability to wage war and destroy the future of his regime.

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