Collective punishment or effective sanction? Europe weighs in on banning Russian tourists

Kyiv, Ukraine — Outraged and distressed after six months of war in ukraineEurope is wrestling with a question with profound diplomatic and moral implications: whether to ban Russian travellers.

Kyiv’s allies were appalled by the split-screen juxtaposition of Russian tourists sunbathing on Mediterranean beaches while many Ukrainians spend part of their summer in bomb shelters, dodge missiles and artillery.

Fueled by a plea from the Ukrainian government earlier this month, the debate over visa bans is raging from Brussels to Washington, underscoring longstanding divisions within the West over how aggressively to confront Russia in the next phase of the war.

At the heart of the moral question hanging over European capitals is the culpability of the Russian public: are ordinary citizens, in invisibly opposing, allowing President Vladimir Putin’s War.

Europe’s struggle to answer this question pits competing values ​​against each other: pluralism and equity versus national sovereignty; responsibility for a country’s actions versus the moral hazards of “collective punishment”.

“We are not talking about punishment, we are talking about restrictive measures which are aimed at ending the war,” Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu told NBC News via Zoom this week. “The right to enter a particular country is not a human right.”

The decision could have significant economic ramifications for the continent. Russian travelers spent $22.5 billion last year in foreign countries, according to analytics firm GlobalData, and there were some 13.7 million international departures from Russia. Among the most popular destinations for Russians, the group states: Italy and Cyprus.

Kyiv wants this to change and has called on the countries of the European Union and the Group of Seven — a club that includes the United States — to ban Russian travellers.

The question could arise next week at a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Prague, but not all Western countries are on the same page.

Germany is against a visa ban affecting “ordinary Russians”, Chancellor Olaf Scholz said recently, adding: “This is Putin’s war.” EU foreign policy chief Joseph Borelltold a conference in Spain on Monday that it was “not a good idea” and that “we have to be more selective”.

This week, the United States also came out against a visa ban.

“The United States would not want to close avenues of refuge and safety to Russian dissidents or others vulnerable to human rights abuses,” a State Department spokesperson said. “It is important to draw a line between the actions of the Russian government and its policy in Ukraine, and the Russian people.”

Still, many countries on Moscow’s doorstep have led the charge to stop letting the Russians in, in some cases citing security concerns given the ongoing war. Finland plans to reduce the number of visas issued to Russians by 90%. And Poland said he supports the EU denying Russians Schengen visas, which allow passport-free travel to 26 European countries.

Estonia, which shares a nearly 200-mile border with Russia, has pleaded with other EU countries to follow its lead by stopping issuing tourist visas for Russians and invalidating existing visas, a move that came into effect last week. Reinslau 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 bear no legal responsibility,” he said. “But Russian society bears a special moral responsibility that its continued passivity legitimizes the genocide that is happening in the middle of Europe.”

The countries bordering Russia feel the debate over the visa ban particularly acutely. Shortly after the invasion, the EU banned flights from Russia, forcing Russians seeking to travel to Europe to cross land borders to countries like Finland and then fly elsewhere.

Russians who used Helsinki as a transit hub shared pics on instagramsome joking about the large number of fellow Russians waiting for flights from the Finnish capital, others assuring their followers that they had not experienced “Russophobia” during their travels.

The Kremlin has called any suggestion of a Russian visa ban an “irrational thought” by hostile countries, with spokesman Dmitry Peskov saying: “The smell of such initiatives is not very good, it’s the least we can say”.

Critics of punishing Russians for their government’s actions say imposing collective accountability on the public is particularly unfair in a country that lacks free and fair elections to choose its leaders.

It’s also notoriously difficult to accurately gauge public opinion in Russia, which lacks protections for free speech and has made it illegal to discredit the Russian military’s version of events.

A recent poll by the Levada Center, a non-governmental research group based in Moscow, found that national support for what Putin describes only as a “special military operation” has remained stable at around 76%, with older Russians more likely than younger people to support it. .

“You saw at the beginning of the war this very strong view that this is Putin’s war, it’s not the Russian people,” said Heather Conley, Europe specialist and president of the German Marshall Fund of United States, a nonpartisan political organization. . “But more and more, this separation of the Russian people and the Russian government is really getting harder to discern.”

In the early days of the invasion, there were anti-war demonstrations in dozens of Russian cities that have seen thousands arrested, but those protests have mostly died down.

Andrei Kolesnikov, a Moscow-based senior fellow and Russia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Russia’s lack of visible public opposition to the war should not be interpreted as universal support.

“The political opposition has left under threat of criminal prosecution or is already in jail. Going out on the streets is an arrest,” he said. “Whoever speaks in the public space does not know how it will end.”

Some countries have argued for a middle ground that would impose limited visa restrictions while providing exemptions for political dissidents and for humanitarian reasons, such as family funerals.

Former US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul proposed to require all Russians seeking visas to pay a small additional fee that would help fund reconstruction in Ukraine from the damage inflicted by the Russian military.

“You give people the choice to travel, but you make them pay for Ukrainian reconstruction,” said McFaul, now director of Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. “If they don’t want to, they can vacation in Belarus. They don’t have to vacation in Greece.”

Mary I. Bruner