Kyiv, Ukraine – Six months into the war in Ukraine, Europe is grappling with a question with profound diplomatic and moral ramifications: whether to ban Russian travelers.
Kyiv’s allies were dumbfounded by the juxtaposition of Russian screens of Russian tourists sunning themselves on the beaches of the Mediterranean while many Ukrainians spent some summer in shelters, dodging missiles and artillery.
Motivated by an appeal from the Ukrainian government earlier this month, the visa ban debate is raging from Brussels to Washington, highlighting longstanding divisions within the West over how powerfully to confront Russia in the next phase of the war.
At the heart of the moral question hanging over European capitals is the guilt of the Russian people: whether ordinary citizens, by putting forward little visible opposition, are enabling President Vladimir Putin to go to war.
Europe’s struggle to answer this question is to pit competing values against each other: pluralism and fairness versus national sovereignty. Accountability for state actions versus the moral hazards of “collective punishment.”
“We’re not talking about punishment, we’re talking about restrictive measures aimed at ending the war,” Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Reinslow told NBC News via Zoom this week. “The right to enter any particular country is not a human right.”
The decision could have major economic repercussions on the continent. Russian travelers spent $22.5 billion last year in foreign countries, according to analytics firm GlobalData, and there were about 13.7 million international departures from Russia. Among the most popular destinations for Russians, the group says: Italy and Cyprus.
Kyiv wants to change that and has called on European Union countries and the Group of Seven – a club that includes the United States – to ban Russian travelers.
The issue may come to a head next week at a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Prague, but not all Western countries are on the same page.
German Chancellor Olaf Schulz recently said that Germany opposes the visa ban affecting “ordinary Russians,” adding: “This is Putin’s war.” It’s “not a good idea” and “we have to be more selective,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said at a conference in Spain on Monday.
This week, the US also opposed the visa ban.
“The United States will not want to close asylum and safety corridors to Russian dissidents or others at risk of human rights abuses,” a State Department spokesperson said. “It is important to draw a line between the actions and policies of the Russian government in Ukraine, and the Russian people.”
However, several countries on Moscow’s doorstep have led the charge to stop allowing the Russians, in some cases citing security concerns given the ongoing war. Finland plans to reduce the number of visas issued to Russians by 90 percent. Poland said it supports the European Union’s refusal of Russians to grant Schengen visas, which allow passport-free travel within 26 European countries.
Estonia, which shares a border of nearly 200 miles with Russia, has been appealing to other EU countries to follow suit by halting the issuance of tourist visas to Russians and invalidating existing ones, a move that took effect last week. Renslow said the goal of visa restrictions and other sanctions should be to ensure that Russian society feels the impact of the war.
“Of course, they will not bear legal responsibility,” he said. “But Russian society bears a particular moral responsibility that its persistent passivity legitimizes the genocide taking place in Central Europe.”
Countries bordering Russia feel the debate over visa bans is particularly intense. Shortly after the invasion, the European Union banned flights from Russia, forcing Russians seeking to travel to Europe to travel across land borders to countries like Finland, then hop on a flight elsewhere.
Russians who have used Helsinki as a transit hub have shared photos on Instagram, some joking about the huge number of fellow Russians waiting for flights from the Finnish capital, while others assure their followers that they haven’t encountered “Russophobia” on their flights.
The Kremlin called any proposal to ban Russian visas “illogical thinking” from hostile countries, with spokesman Dmitry Peskov saying: “The smell of such initiatives is not very good, to say the least.”
Critics of punishing Russians for their government’s actions argue that imposing collective responsibility on the public is particularly unfair in a country that lacks free and fair elections to choose its leaders.
It is also known that it is difficult to accurately measure public opinion in Russia, which lacks the protection of freedom of expression and makes it illegal to distort the Russian military’s version of events.
A recent survey by the Levada Center, a Moscow-based nongovernmental research group, found that domestic support for what Putin describes only as a “special military operation” has remained steady at around 76 percent, with older Russians more likely than younger Russians to support it. .
said Heather Conley, a European scholar and president of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a nonpartisan political organization. But it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish this separation between the Russian people and the Russian government.”
In the early days of the invasion, there were anti-war protests in dozens of Russian cities that saw thousands arrested, but those demonstrations mostly died down.
Andrei Kolesnikov, Moscow-based senior fellow and Russian expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the lack of clear public opposition in Russia to the war should not be interpreted as global support.
“The political opposition is either left under threat of criminal prosecution or is already in prison,” he said. “Going out into the street is arrest.” “He who speaks in public does not know how it will end.”
Some countries have called for a compromise position imposing limited visa restrictions while granting exceptions to political opponents and for humanitarian reasons, such as family funerals.
Former US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul has suggested requiring all Russians seeking a visa to pay a small additional fee that would help fund reconstruction in Ukraine from the damage done to the Russian military.
“You give people the option to travel, but you force them to pay for Ukrainian reconstruction,” said McFaul, director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University. “If they don’t want to, they can vacation in Belarus. They don’t have to vacation in Greece.”