Unmoved: Why a ban on Russians’ visas won’t help

It is wishful thinking to believe that travel restrictions on Russian nationals would affect the Kremlin’s policies

DIESES FOTO WIRD VON DER RUSSISCHEN STAATSAGENTUR TASS ZUR VERFÜGUNG GESTELLT. [IVANGOROD, LENINGRAD REGION, RUSSIA – AUGUST 18, 2022: People are seen at a passport control area at a crossing point on the border with Estonia. The passage of trucks from Russia to Estonia at the Ivangorod-Narva crossing has been resumed, the ban on the entry of trucks from Estonia into Russia remains. As of August 18, Estonia has restricted entry for Russian citizens with Schengen visas issued by Estonia. Peter Kovalev/TASS]
People waiting to pass the border between Russia and Estonia
Image by picture alliance/dpa/TASS | Peter Kovalev

On 8 August, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called on Western countries to impose a visa ban on Russian tourists. He was supported by the prime ministers of Finland and Estonia, countries that have been the main gateways through which Russians enter the European Union ever since member states suspended their air connections with Russia. There is now a heated debate over the issue, with some Russian propagandists threatening to further escalate Russia’s war on Ukraine if the visa ban comes into force. Meanwhile, some supporters of the ban in the EU claim these threats show that the move would increase the pressure on the Kremlin.

The idea certainly makes sense from a moral point of view. It seems unacceptable that Russians can enjoy holidays in luxury hotels on the French Riviera and shopping trips in EU capitals while Ukrainians suffer and die in Russia’s war on Ukraine. Travel to Europe is not a human right, so the argument goes, but a privilege unsuited to nationals of a country that has invaded a neighbouring state and committed large-scale war crimes there.

The second argument in favour of a visa ban is based on different assumptions: the measure is meant to show to the Russian public – especially the urban upper middle class, whose views the Kremlin is supposedly most concerned about – that the war has a price. Supporters of the ban see the opportunity to travel to the EU as part of the social contract the Russian regime has created with its domestic supporters. By destroying that social contract, the visa ban would reduce the regime’s room for manoeuvre at home.

Barring Russian nationals from travelling to the EU would not isolate them but simply make them turn to other destinations

This line of argument has two major flaws. Firstly, it is wishful thinking to believe that travel restrictions on Russian nationals would affect the Kremlin’s policies. Travel to Europe was too expensive for most Russians even before the suspension of direct flights between member states and Russia. Barring Russian nationals from travelling to the EU would not isolate them but simply make them turn to other destinations. While it is true that trips to EU member states have not necessarily made Russians more receptive to European values, a visa ban – a restriction the EU has never specifically imposed on the nationals of any country – would play into the hands of the Russian government’s propaganda about the West’s alleged Russophobia. Russians who travel to the EU should see the inaccuracy of the Kremlin’s caricature of Europe. The decision would be welcomed by the regime, which has long built its legitimacy on the resentment and frustrations of the Russian public. In turn, the ban would make the most open-minded Russians more vulnerable, as any of them who lived in the EU or travelled there would be labelled as a fifth column of the West in Russia. These people could have an important role in the future: there will be a Russia after President Vladimir Putin.

Secondly, this argument ignores the fact that the Russian regime leaves little space for expressing dissent and severely punishes those who do so. Over the years, it has successfully played on the social and political fragmentation of Russian society to prevent the emergence of a structured protest movement, while at the same time developing instruments to shape public opinion and discredit alternative discourses. The kind of massive demonstrations that took place in Moscow in 2011-2012 would no longer be possible. And Russians who oppose the war have instead developed other forms of protest, allowing them to convey their message in public spaces while remaining as safe as possible. Barring these people from travel to the EU would deprive them of a safety valve – a break from a repressive environment – and would prevent them from visiting the EU on short notice if they were in danger. These people should not have to choose between asylum and loyalty to the regime: they should have the opportunity to stay in Russia if they are willing to take the risk, and to leave if they need to, including for short periods of time.

There is also some self-delusion in the argument that a ban would cover only so-called tourist visas. Visas are categorised by the duration of travellers’ stay: either up to 90 days or more than this. The reason for the stay – such as tourism, family visits, or business – only determines the type of documents that should accompany the application. So, a ban on tourist visas would actually mean a ban on either any form of travel to the EU for less than 90 days or on applications based on a hotel booking, which is the fastest way to apply for a visa. It would become difficult for all Russian nationals – including civil society activists, journalists, and artists – to apply for a visa without established contacts in EU countries and a tedious bureaucratic process involving documents for a non-tourist visa. Humanitarian visas, often presented as an alternative that these people could use, are only available in a small number of EU member states. And it is unlikely that a Russian national who received a humanitarian visa could then safely travel back to Russia. Therefore, a ban on tourist visas for Russian nationals would force these people to choose between unwanted exile or an unsafe return to Russia.

For the sake of its own identity, the EU should think twice before adopting a measure that would deeply question the values it aspires to. The European project is based on openness and non-discrimination – even if, in recent years, the union has sometimes strayed from these values in its migration policy.

There is no way that a visa ban would contribute to Ukraine’s victory on the ground. It would be better for the EU to focus on the things that could achieve this goal: maintaining and enforcing sanctions on Russia, which would constrain its capacity to sustain its war effort; supporting the economic, social, and financial resilience of Ukraine; and providing Ukraine with the weapons it needs to continue the fight. The EU should prepare to sustain these policies over time rather than introduce measures that are symbolic but ineffective.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Director, Wider Europe programme

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