Russian programmers are leaving the country in droves as it grows more isolated in the wake of President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, leaving some observers to worry about the long-term effect of this brain drain on the country’s technology industry.
While accurate numbers are hard to come by in the midst of a conflict, the Russian Association for Electronic Communications (RAEC) estimated that up to 70,000 programmers had left the country. It expects as many as 100,000 more to leave in April. The exodus could set Russia’s tech sector and fields like artificial intelligence back years, industry observers told Grid. Russia ranks 10th in terms of its share of billion-dollar startup unicorns; the United States is first and China second.
“They’re clearly going to take a hit in effectively every direction,” said Margarita Konaev, the associate director of analysis at Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology, where she studies applications of AI and Russian military innovation. “I understand why people are fleeing, but I will say that it’s very hard to know numbers.”
Fleeing under duress
There are many reasons why tech workers are leaving. Programmers are facing a lack of job security as multinational firms either scale back or withdraw services from the Russian market due to sanctions. The government is cracking down on media and internet access, creating a more insular information environment. And companies like Cogent, which shepherds large swaths of the world’s internet traffic, are unplugging from Russian clients, decreasing the country’s overall connectivity speed.
Grid spoke with one IT professional who fled the country with his wife, also a tech worker, because of the lack of clarity about what was going to happen in Russia. The man asked for anonymity over fears about his safety and the Russian government’s accelerating efforts to stop people from leaving.
“It does seem like these experiences are increasingly common,” said Konaev. “Especially flight to these post-Soviet republics that have big Russian populations [and] are reachable by land. Armenia being one, along with Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. They’re increasingly becoming the destination and not necessarily because of the attraction of the tech sectors. But because people are under duress.”
Ronald Suny, a professor of history and political science at the University of Michigan who has spent years studying Russia, said that people there now are worried about Putin walling off the country from the rest of the world, Soviet-style. That is particularly true of younger people (who are generally more technologically adept) who didn’t grow up with censorship or the same kind of geopolitical walls their parents did, he said.
“‘We’re going backwards,’” Suny said of the sentiment he’s been hearing. “‘The walls are being built again. We’ve been thrown out of the family of nations.’ This is the kind of rhetoric. The dominant emotion is despair.”
Western countries who are leading the charge to impose sanctions against Russia are taking advantage of the situation by attracting workers who leave. They are also using the optics of people leaving to highlight the effectiveness of sanctions.
“The digital economy means demand for skilled IT professionals is high in the European Union and from Western multinationals, and these workers leaving Russia due to the impact of sanctions and restrictions on access to international markets and clients could be a boon to Western economies,” said Julia Trehu, program manager and fellow at the German Marshall Fund’s Digital Innovation and Democracy Initiative.
It also denies Russia the people needed to continue building a sovereign internet by replacing Western services that have withdrawn from the country or have been banned. This fits the West’s immediate objective of inflicting economic harm on Russia and combatting the creation of a new digital Iron Curtain, Trehu said, but it could ultimately backfire.
“The long-term effects of a brain drain may undermine these goals, as it deprives Russia of those who might be most open to pushing for domestic change, as difficult and dangerous as that is under Putin,” she said.
Breaking the tech circle
Russians are increasingly caught between Russian government crackdowns and international firms pulling back. It’s antithetical to the interconnected nature of the global tech industry. There is not one single tech company that makes the industry successful, but rather a collection of them.
“Any sort of [Russian] scientific and technological cooperation with foreign partners, which was already increasingly limited and under crackdown, is probably being cut even more vigorously, because the foreign partners are severing those ties,” said Konaev. If infrastructure starts to degrade, that makes it extremely difficult for the few folks who remain. That can create a feedback loop and encourage those holdouts to leave for greener pastures, said Bob O’Donnell, president of consulting firm TECHnalysis Research.
“I do think that this could set the tech industry in Russia back several years,” said O’Donnell.
The ultimate outcome could depend in large part on how China and Chinese tech giants like Huawei respond, because they have an opportunity now to “just monopolize and effectively take control over the Russian tech sector and supply of semiconductor equipment,” said Konaev. “But the quality of tech and science is going to take a massive dip.”
Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for copy editing this story.