A visa ban won’t have the same impact as military aid to Kyiv, but it would send a strong message to ordinary Russians.
It has been more than six months since Russia launched a brutal war against Ukraine, killing thousands of people and forcing millions of Ukrainians to flee their homes. Despite tough Western sanctions, including air travel suspensions between European Union member states and Russia, this summer, Russian tourists still seem to be enjoying luxury holidays on the French and Italian rivieras. In the meantime, Ukrainians are fighting for their lives. The impressive scale and speed of the Kharkiv counteroffensive demonstrated that with Western support, Ukraine will be able to liberate its occupied territories—but that doesn’t mean Europe should avoid taking other more symbolic measures.
In August, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky urged Western countries to ban all Russian travelers, as they should “live in their own world until they change their philosophy.” Zelensky’s idea was promptly supported by Estonia and Finland, advocating for an EU-wide tourist visa ban. Both countries, which have served as key routes for Russians to enter the EU, have already limited the number of visas issued to Russians. Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin stressed that it is morally wrong that Russian citizens can live a normal life and travel in Europe while their government is waging a brutal war.
Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, Norway, Finland, Denmark, and the Czech Republic have also supported the EU-wide tourist visa ban. Yet, a number of countries—including Germany, France, Hungary, Austria, and Luxembourg—have objected. Germany and France stressed the importance of showcasing the EU’s transformative power, especially for young Russians, while Austria called the ban a counterproductive move when it comes to fighting Russian propaganda.
During a late August meeting of EU foreign ministers, a compromise was reached by suspending the 2007 visa facilitation with Russia that would make it harder for Russians to receive a tourist visa. Yet, this decision will hardly have any impact. The EU can and must do more.
The visa ban is indeed an extraordinary measure, yet six months of bloodshed in Ukraine and at least 14 years of appeasement have forced the West into leaving its comfort zone when dealing with Russia. Due to a lack of unity within the bloc, countries such as the Baltic states and Poland are reinforcing their own immigration measures and restricting entry to Russians.
Ordinary Russians never stood up against Russia’s invasion of Georgia, its annexation of Crimea, or Russian war crimes in Syria. Putin’s approval ratings grew in the aftermath of the 2008 August war and reached an all-time high of 89 percent following the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Through state propaganda, Putin has been using his aggressive foreign-policy gains to divert attention away from domestic problems, maximize public support, and portray Russia’s imperialist military adventures as existential wars against alleged NATO expansion.
So far, the strategy has worked, and no powerful anti-war movement has emerged in Russia. Ironically, a recently formed right-wing protest movement is not about condemning the war but rather unites a group of furious hawks who are disappointed by the Russian military, calling for shedding more blood in Ukraine and using more devastating means to win the war.
Powerful propaganda and brutal repression against opponents have certainly played a role in killing willingness in the remaining group of opposition-minded citizens to speak up. Despite a swift shift from authoritarianism to totalitarianism and the overt use of violence against any opponent, according to polls conducted by the Levada Center, Putin’s ratings have still been rising.
When German Chancellor Olaf Scholz states, “This is not the war of the Russian people; it is Putin’s war,” he is fundamentally mistaken.
Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, Putin’s approval has reached 83 percent. Given these numbers, when German Chancellor Olaf Scholz states, “This is not the war of the Russian people; it is Putin’s war,” he is fundamentally mistaken.
Since the annexation of Crimea, Western sanctions policy has been limited in scope and intentionally has not targeted ordinary citizens. But the separation of Kremlin policies from ordinary citizens has not worked. Russians have become accustomed to the idea that no matter what Putin does, the West would eventually turn a blind eye and do business as usual. In 2021, Schengen countries received 3 million short-stay visa applications from Russia, out of which only 3.2 percent were rejected. Yet, there is no evidence that EU soft power has worked and greater people-to-people links have had any transformational impact. Now, it is time for every segment of society to feel the impact of the war.
Although the prospect of regime change looks distant and, at this point, unrealistic, a change in Russia will only come from within. Ukrainians and Georgians know this well by having experience in standing up against authoritarian leaders and forcing them to cede power.
The decision to resist and oppose Putin’s brutal regime is very costly; thousands of citizens have been arrested in cities across Russia for denouncing its war in Ukraine. Prominent Russian opposition activists Vladimir Kara-Murza and Ilya Yashin have been arrested for criticizing the war. Most recently, former mayor of Yekaterinburg and Russian opposition politician Yevgeny Roizman was arrested for discrediting the Russian army. These days, a single word is enough to end up in prison.
Allowing Russian citizens to enjoy the perks of traveling in the EU while their government is killing innocent Ukrainians is morally and politically wrong. It furthermore encourages Russians to distance themselves from politics and claim that they are “apolitical”—and hence do not really have a view on Russia’s war in Ukraine. A visa ban would force them to take sides, and it sends a message to each citizen that unless they oppose and condemn the war, there is no space for them in the West.
Opponents of the visa ban are correct to point out that such a measure would not stop the war. The EU indeed holds much stronger leverage in terms of various sets of sanctions that can weaken the regime and, most importantly, help Ukrainians win the war by supplying them with much-needed weapons, which they have demonstrated can make a significant difference. It is also true that Russia will scale up its anti-Western propaganda. In fact, the Kremlin has already been using the proposed initiative for its propaganda purposes by calling it a Nazi policy and trying to mobilize public support against a common enemy.
Yet, the EU must not shy away from making bold decisions. Russia has already been portraying the war in Ukraine as a war against the West, and as long as the EU and NATO allies remain united in supporting Ukraine, Russia will always wage a nasty propaganda war.
It’s important for the EU to keep humanitarian channels open for journalists, civil society activists, and outspoken individuals who face threats inside Russia.
There is one group that a visa and tourism ban would endanger: opposition-minded Russians. The quickest and most common way for such individuals to get to the EU and then claim asylum is through tourist visas. Although they are in the minority, they are now in the most vulnerable position that they have ever been in throughout Putin’s long reign. It is important for the EU to keep humanitarian channels open for journalists, civil society activists, and outspoken individuals who face existential threats inside Russia. EU countries must work closely with reliable civil society organizations and nongovernmental organizations to secure humanitarian visas for those Russian dissidents who are in danger of being persecuted by Putin’s regime.
The heated debate on visa bans should not divert attention away from the main goal of helping Ukraine win the war. There is still much that the West can and has to do to stand by Ukraine in terms of bolstering its military support, strengthening economic sanctions on Russia, and depriving Moscow of its precious oil and gas import revenue. The visa ban would be a solid addition and a signal for Russians that this time, the EU is abandoning its double standards on Russia. Apart from moral and political grounds, it would also decrease security threats for individual EU states in terms of growing infiltration attempts from Russian agents.
Recently, Bellingcat revealed how a Russian military intelligence officer settled down in Naples, Italy, to forge closer links with NATO staff. Although not a member of the EU, three suspected Kremlin spies were arrested last month in Albania. The spies entered the country as tourists. With relations between Russia and the West reaching their lowest point, intelligence agents will become more inclined to cross country borders using tourist visas. That infiltration of Europe must be stopped.
Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas is absolutely right: “Visiting Europe is a privilege, not a human right.” It is time for Russians to realize that this privilege must be earned./FP