March 3, 2023 - 1:00pm

Since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there has been much talk about Russian brain drain — that is, educated professionals fleeing the country. While the total number of emigrants is unknown, it may be as high as 900,000.

People have fled Russia for a number of reasons: to find work, to escape political persecution and to evade the “partial mobilisation” announced last September. According to a survey of 2,000 migrants carried out in March and April, 81% had a university degree — compared to just 27% in the population at large. Russian brain drain is real.

Some Western commentators have gone as far as suggesting that we should encourage brain drain by fast-tracking visas for qualified Russians — in an effort to weaken Putin’s regime. The fewer educated professionals around, the less talent available to bolster his flagging economy.

Less discussed is the fact that Ukraine has also experienced brain drain, thanks to the ongoing refugee crisis. The UN reports that 47% of Ukraine’s eight million refugees have a university degree, compared to around 24% in the general population — which numbered some 41 million before the war.

Where is the brain drain more acute? Based on total population, percentage of citizens with a degree, number of migrants, and percentage of migrants with a degree, we can work out the following. Since the invasion began, the share of Russians with a degree has fallen by 0.3 percentage points, or 1.2%. By contrast, the share of Ukrainians with a degree has fallen by 5.6 percentage points, or 23%.

This means that Ukraine’s brain drain is almost 17 times worse than Russia’s. If encouraging high-skilled emigration is a way to “punish regimes we don’t like”, as Ed West puts it, what does this say about Ukraine’s future?

Perhaps high-skilled Ukrainians will return once the war is over. Yet there are reasons for pessimism. Ukraine was the poorest country in Europe before the war and will be even poorer afterward. Moreover, host countries have been relatively welcoming — with polls showing much higher support for Ukrainian refugees than those from other conflict zones.

So unless they’re summarily expelled when the war ends, high-skilled Ukrainians have strong incentives to stay where they are. And they can hardly be blamed. In fact, the country’s skill-shortage could worsen if married men decide to re-join their families living abroad, rather than the other way around.

What seems certain is that the longer the war drags on, the smaller the number of refugees who will eventually return. Bear in mind that some experts believe this “war of attrition” could last “months or even years”. How attractive a destination will Ukraine be for the highly skilled if it sustains years of fighting?

Hawks insist that from Ukraine’s point of view, negotiating now would amount to capitulation. Yet in many ways, Ukraine has already won. Delaying negotiations will surely exacerbate the various long-term problems the country faces, of which brain drain is only one.

Noah Carl is an independent researcher and writer.