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Russians flee Putin’s regime after Ukraine war in second wave of migration


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A ‘second wave’ of Russians are now formally relocating to countries spanning Europe, the Middle East and Asia after spending time getting their affairs in order.

Natalia Kolesnikova | Afp | Getty Images

For months now, Vladimir has been preparing paperwork and getting his affairs in order for a move to France.

A visa application process that was once relatively easy is now dogged with complexity, but the 37-year-old is confident that getting his family and employees out of Russia will be worthwhile.

“On the one hand, it’s comfortable to live in the country where you were born. But on the other, it’s about the safety of your family,” Vladimir told CNBC via videocall from his office in Moscow.

For Vladimir, the decision to leave the country he has called home all his life “was not made in one day.” Under President Vladimir Putin’s rule, he has watched what he called the “erosion of politics and freedom” in Russia over several years. But the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine was the final straw.

“I think, in a year or two, everything will be so bad,” he said of his country.

The Russian Embassy in London and Russia’s Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment.

Russia’s ‘second wave’ of migration

Vladimir is part of what he considers Russia’s “second wave” of migration following the war. This includes those who took longer to prepare to leave the country — such as people with businesses or families who wanted to let their children finish the school year before leaving.

Such flexibility was not afforded to everybody. When Moscow invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, alongside the millions of Ukrainians who were forced to flee their homes, life for some Russians became untenable overnight.

Once the flow begins and people start finding out how to do things … that prompts more people to leave.

Jeanne Batalova

senior policy analyst, Migration Policy Institute

A “first wave” of artists, journalists and others openly opposed to Putin’s regime felt they had to leave the country immediately or risk political persecution for violating the Kremlin’s clampdown on public dissent.

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“A lot of people got notices saying that they were traitors,” said Jeanne Batalova, senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, noting the backlash suffered by some Russians — even from neighbors.

But as the war rages on, more Russians are deciding to pack up and leave.

“The way migration works is that once the flow begins and people start finding out how to do things — get a flat, apply for asylum, find a job or start a business — that prompts more people to leave. It becomes a self-fulfilling cycle,” Batalova said.

An exodus in the hundreds of thousands

There are no concrete data on the number of Russians who have left the country since the start of the war. However, one Russian economist put the total at 200,000 as of mid-March.

That figure is likely to be far higher now, according to Batalova, as tens of thousands of Russians have relocated to Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, Israel, the Baltic States and beyond.

“If you look at the various destinations where people have gone, these numbers do ring true,” she said. And that’s not even counting Russia’s large overseas diaspora, many of whom are in Southeast Asia, who have chosen not to return home following the invasion. Batalova puts that figure at around 100,000.

There is no concrete data on the number of people who have fled Russia following the war, although economists put estimates at 200,000 to 300,000 as of mid-March.

Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

In the tech sector alone, an estimated 50,000 to 70,000 professionals left in the first month of the war, with a further 70,000 to 100,000 expected to follow soon thereafter, according to a Russian IT industry trade group.

Some start-up founders like Vladimir, who runs a software service for restaurants, have decided to relocate their businesses and staff overseas, choosing countries with access to capital, such as France, the U.K, Spain and Cyprus. Vladimir is moving his wife and school-age child, as well as his team of four and their families, to Paris.

They follow more mobile independent Russia tech workers who have already flocked to low-visa countries including Indonesia, Thailand and Turkey.

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You’re seeing a massive brain drain. The disruption for talented people is enormous.

Then, there’s a third group of tech workers at larger Russian IT companies who are leaving more out of obligation than choice.

Mikhail Mizhinsky, founder of Relocode, a company that helps tech businesses relocate, said these people faced a particularly difficult situation.

Many have received ultimatums from overseas customers who are ceasing doing business with Russia. For them, it’s a toss up between low costs in Bulgaria, Russian influence in Serbia, and tax benefits in Armenia, according to Mizhinsky.

“Most of them don’t necessarily want to leave Russia, where their home is,” he said. “But, on the other hand, they have their clients who buy their IT outsourced products and services who demanded them to leave. Many got letters from clients who said they would terminate their contracts if they did not leave Russia.”

The well-educated and the wealthy

The tech sector is one among several professional services industries that have seen an exodus of talent from Russia’s larger cities, as people reject the war and worsening business conditions.

Scott Antel, an international hospitality and franchise lawyer who spent almost two decades working in Moscow, has so far this year helped five friends relocate from Russia to Dubai, in several cases purchasing properties for them, sight unseen, to expedite the move.

“You’re seeing a massive brain drain,” said Antel, whose departing friends span the legal and consulting professions, as well as hospitality and real estate. “The disruption for talented people is enormous and is going to be even more so.”

Around 15,000 millionaires are expected to leave Russia this year, adding to the increasing number of people migrating away amid President Putin’s war.

Oleg Nikishin | Getty Images News

“A lot of them feel that they’ve lost their country,” he continued. “Realistically, is this going to turn around in a couple of years? No.”

And it’s not just professionals seeking out the stability of overseas markets like Dubai. Having remained politically neutral amid international sanctions, the emirate has emerged a destination of choice for Russia’s uber rich too, with many shifting their wealth into its luxury property market.

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Indeed, around 15,000 millionaires are expected to leave Russia this year, according to a June report from London-based citizenship-by-investment firm Henley & Partners, with Dubai ranking as the top location for the super rich.

Wariness among host countries

The ongoing second exodus comes amid reports that some of Russia’s earlier emigres have returned home, because of both family and business ties, as well as difficulties as a result of travel restrictions and banking sanctions.

However, Batalova said she expects such returns to be short-lived.

“My bet would be that the emigration from Russia will continue, and when people do go back it will be to sell possessions, homes, and then leave again,” she said.

But questions remain over the reception some Russian emigres may receive in their host country, she said.

They don’t want Russia to come along later and try to protect Russians in those host countries as they did with the diaspora in Ukraine.

Jeanna Batalova

senior policy analyst, Migration Policy Institute

“In this conflict, Russia is viewed as the aggressor, and that attitude is passed down onto the emigres. Even if they [Russian migrants] are against the system, the public sentiment can be transferred to the new arrivals,” Batalova said.

Indeed, there is a very real fear among some host countries that an influx of Russian migrants could see them become a target for a future Russian invasion. Moscow has maintained that part of the justification for its so-called “special military operation” in Ukraine was the “liberation” of Donbas, an area of east Ukraine which is home to a significant number of ethnic Russians.

According to Batalova, countries like Georgia, Armenia, and the Baltic states — all of which have suffered at the hands of Russian aggression in the past, and have existing concerns over their national security — are likely to be particularly anxious.

“They don’t want Russia to come along later and try to protect Russians in those host countries as they did with the diaspora in Ukraine,” she noted.

Still, Vladimir is undeterred. He is hopeful for a fresh start in his family’s search for a new home outside of Russia.

“Regarding the negativity, I’m sure it’s not true for 100% for all people. In any country, and with any passport, people can understand one another,” he said.


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