Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky insists. “Let them live in their own world until they change their philosophy,” he said in an interview with The Washington Post this month. “This is the only way to influence Putin.”
Calls grow to ban EU visas for Russians, but not all Ukrainians agree
He has support from EU countries that share a border with Russia – the Baltic States and Finland – as well as Poland and the Czech Republic.
A travel ban is “another way to get our message to the Russian people that the Kremlin must end its genocidal war against the Ukrainian people,” Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas said in an email. “People change their minds as soon as their own privileges are violated and their well-being is affected.”
But other EU members, notably Germany and France, are vehemently opposed to the idea. They say it would be unfair and unwise to punish all Russians for what German Chancellor Olaf Scholz called “Putin’s war.” Visa restrictions could reduce the dwindling number of escape routes for critics, they argue, and lock more people in the Kremlin’s echo chamber, toying with claims of Western persecution.
“You run the risk of the EU becoming the bad guy in the eyes of Russian citizens who may not support the regime or the war,” said an EU diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations starring – right up to the meeting in Prague.
Wednesday’s session is unlikely to resolve who is allowed to visit and under what conditions. A second EU diplomat familiar with the debate said it would be an informal start to a “discussion” and not the last word on what comes next.
one potential compromise is the complete suspension of a 2007 visa facilitation agreement with Russia, making it more difficult and expensive for Russian citizens to get tourist visas, according to diplomats.
Although Zelensky suggested in his Post interview that travel restrictions should apply to all Russians, including expats, there seems to be little support for such a move.
Much of the current discussion focuses on short-stay visas that allow for up to 90 days of travel across the 26-country Schengen zone. According to EU figures, more than 4 million of those visas were issued in Russia in 2019 before the pandemic.
Member states are debating how to keep their doors open to human rights activists and dissidents, and whether and how to create exemptions for groups such as family members, students and scientists.
Since the Russian invasion, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have all stopped issuing short-stay visas to Russian citizens. Estonia has also proceeded to invalidate previously issued short-stay visas, while Latvia requires Russian travelers entering with existing visas to sign declarations of opposition to the war.
Finland, meanwhile, has announced that it will reduce the number of visas issued to Russians by 90 percent from September 1.
“It is not right that at the same time that Russia is waging an aggressive, brutal war of aggression in Europe, Russians can live normal lives, travel in Europe, be tourists. It’s not right,” Prime Minister Sanna Marin told the Finnish public broadcaster.
Europeans cooked this summer over news reports of Russian-coated luxury vehicles at Helsinki airport. With a widespread ban on Russian flights in place, Russians who wanted to vacation in Europe had to drive to neighboring countries and fly on from there.
But Finland and the Baltic states say they can only do so much to curb Russian tourism and prevent it from being abused as a transit route. Officials complain that many Russian tourists are showing up with short-stay visas issued by other Schengen countries.
“We must say a clear ‘no’ to shameless Russian freeriders at the border,” Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis wrote in an op-ed for Politico calling for “visa solidarity” within the EU
Like others advocating for curbing Russian tourism, he suggested visas should still be available on humanitarian grounds — “leaving the door of Europe open to democratic activists and those persecuted by the authoritarian regimes of Moscow and Minsk. “
Other leaders and officials say the idea of targeting ordinary Russians to punish Putin is misguided.
Some doubt that banning tourism will incite ordinary Russians to oppose the war, let alone the government.
“The idea that forcing Russians to stay at home would somehow get them to change Kremlin’s policies is questionable even if the Russian state were a democracy, and is downright ridiculous when you consider that it is anything but,” wrote Anna Arutunyan, a Russian-American journalist and author. an opinion piece for the Moscow Times.
“There is no historical evidence that people are pushing for democratic change through closed borders,” she continued. “There is only evidence to the contrary.”
In a discussion paper circulated ahead of this week’s meeting, France and Germany argue against a blanket ban on the grounds that experiencing life in democratic systems firsthand could have “distorting power” for Russians, according to DPA, the German news agency.
“Our visa policy should reflect that and continue to allow people in the EU to interact with Russian citizens who have no ties to the Russian government,” the paper said.
Dmitry Peskov, a Kremlin spokesman, said on Tuesday that the EU visa debate showed “an absolute lack of reason”.
“These are very serious decisions that could potentially target our citizens,” he said, and “cannot go unanswered.”
Kate Brady in Berlin and Mary Ilyushina from Riga contributed to this report.