Over three short weeks, Yuri Milner has gone from hyper-cautious to hyper-critical on the delicate matter of Vladimir Putin. Milner, as I wrote earlier this month, is the Silicon Valley leader with the closest disclosed ties to the Kremlin, and so has been under pressure to say something about the regime that helped bankroll his career in venture capital. Milner has since become an Israeli citizen, and relatively little of the total money he has raised, by this point, can be tied back to Moscow. Still, a now-sanctioned Russian oligarch provided pivotal early backing for Milner’s firm, DST Global, that made it possible for him to make a spectacularly successful bet on Facebook. And so as corporate America grew louder and more unanimous in its opposition to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, it seemed a safe prediction that Yuri—now a bona fide tech celebrity with a $100 million mansion in the Los Altos hills—wouldn’t be able to stay silent without facing some kind of backlash in the media, if not from his peers.
Even so, I confess that I was surprised on Monday when Milner’s team released an unequivocal, finger-wagging condemnation of the government that made his American dream possible. “The Breakthrough Prize Foundation strongly condemns Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its unprovoked and brutal assaults against the civilian population,” reads one of two statements released Monday, this one by Milner’s signature philanthropic effort. “We wholeheartedly endorse their stand in solidarity with the people of Ukraine in support of their unqualified right to peace, security and self-determination.”
An initial statement from the foundation, issued earlier this month, offered a more cerebral, even poetic, commentary about how wars thwart science and endanger refugees. But it was pretty wishy-washy about why there was said war or who was fueling the refugee crisis—the word “Russia” did not appear anywhere, for instance. The foundation merely lamented “the devastating war and tragic humanitarian catastrophe in Ukraine.” At the time, I read that statement as a genuine attempt by Yuri to use his wealth to address a humanitarian catastrophe that I’m sure pains him—the foundation announced a $3 million emergency donation—while at the same time avoiding saying anything that might risk family, friendships, or financial partnerships back home. Those generous to Yuri might argue that the wishy-washy version was the best he could do, given just how delicate the situation was for him.