Russians can wage a war against their neighbors, or they can travel freely to the West – but they should not be allowed to do both. No one can try to destroy Europe’s rules-based order and at the same time reap its benefits.
While direct air and rail links between Russia and the European Union have been cut, Russian citizens holding a valid Schengen visa can still enter the bloc by land via Finland, Estonia or Latvia. And there has been a significant increase in traffic, particularly in Finland, which saw around 176,000 border crossings from Russia in July alone.
Finland is among a small number of EU countries that continue to issue tourist visas to Russians. Unlike, say, Poland and the Czech Republic, which have suspended issuing visas except in humanitarian cases, Finland granted more than 10,000 new Schengen visas to Russians last month alone.
Like Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas saidthe lack of a coordinated EU response means that Finland, Estonia and Latvia – Russia’s only remaining land entry points to the EU – bear most of the burden, as well as the risk of receiving contingents of nationals Russia in their territory.
Kallas is right: visiting Europe “is a privilege, not a human right”. So is visiting the United Kingdom and the United States – both of which have suspended the issuance of tourist visas to Russian citizens.
To be sure, there must be a path to political asylum for Russians fleeing the persecution of President Vladimir Putin. Encouraging the brain drain through work and immigration visas for carefully vetted and highly skilled Russians would also be helpful.
At the same time, a coordinated ban on short-stay visits should not be futile, subject to reasonable humanitarian exceptions, only in the EU – and include the cancellation of currently valid visas, in addition to the ban on new visas.
Officials must also minimize existing travel loopholes that continue to make the West accessible to Russian visitors, including threats of secondary sanctions against entities such as Hungary-based airline Wizz Air, which is planning to reopen flights between Moscow and Abu Dhabi, providing the Russians with a low-cost, albeit indirect, route to the EU.
The purpose of such measures is not merely symbolic. It is, first of all, a matter of security.
It is likely, for example, that Russian operatives two weeks ago targeted the warehouse of Emilian Gebrev, a Bulgarian arms dealer who survived a Novichok poisoning in 2015 – a fifth explosion at his company’s facilities in the recent past. In the Baltic states, too, sizable Russian-speaking minorities represent a security risk, which the ability of Russian nationals to travel freely, establish contacts, and incite unrest only exacerbates.
In Budapest, the Russian-controlled International Investment Bank enjoys diplomatic privileges and immunities comparable to other multilateral institutions in the West – say, the World Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development – while it is widely seen as a tool for espionage and sales influence.
A travel ban would not close all existing loopholes. But the effectiveness of any sanctions regime tends to deteriorate over time as adjustments are made and solutions are found. For this reason alone, it is important that Western powers signal that they are serious about severing their economic and, yes, personal and cultural ties with Russia as long as it remains an aggressor in its war against Ukraine.
Talking about “collective punishment” of the Russians is beside the point. While the regime’s propaganda is effective, popular support for Russian imperialism runs deep. Thus, “ordinary” Russians bear some responsibility for the atrocities committed by their government and their armed forces in their war of conquest – just as “ordinary” Serbs and “ordinary” Germans did during the 1990s and 1940s, respectively.
Of course, the dissidents deserve our help, but most Russians seem to view the “special military operation” with indifference, if not outright enthusiasm. In other words, it is not alone of Putin but of Russia war.
How ordinary Russians and Russian elites react to a tightening of travel restrictions is a matter of speculation. No less speculative, however, is the widely accepted notion that Russians are somehow, by their very nature, inclined to suffer for the sake of the motherland and thus forced to wait for Western sanctions.
More importantly, any concern about the radicalization of the nation, if further cornered and isolated, flies in the face of the fact that 20 years of engagement, trade and integration of Russia into Western structures have produced an imperialist, revisionist regime and a threat to the world. In addition to economic sanctions, a travel ban has a chance to make Russians realize they can’t have their cake and eat it too.
Dalibor Rohac is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.