The effort to constrain the Kremlin and punish President Vladimir Putin for his unilateral war of aggression against Ukraine is at grave risk of taking an illiberal – and counterproductive – turn. Over the past 10 days, numerous European leaders and politicians have proposed limiting or even banning Russian nationals from receiving visas, after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called for such restrictions on August 8.
There are myriad issues with such a policy and the framing of the current debate.
It is already becoming much harder for Russians to receive visas for the European Union and Schengen Zone as a result of Putin’s aggression. The Kremlin has repeatedly expelled EU diplomats in recent years and the stinging nature of sanctions on Russian banks raises significant barriers to EU-Russian money transfers, even for individual account holders.
The blame for these challenges clearly lies with the Kremlin. The EU does not have a moral duty to ensure Russian citizens can receive visas when the Kremlin itself is punishing its own citizens and restricting their freedoms. Of course, Brussels and EU member states do make it very difficult for citizens of many countries, largely those in the ‘global south’ and from developing economies, to receive visas. Russia will join this list without the need for any explicit ban.
Yet the calls for restrictions have reached a fever pitch in the European debate, particularly amongst the bloc’s eastern members most at risk of Russian aggression. Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin has come out in favour of explicitly restricting tourism visas for Russian nationals.
On August 11, the Estonian government became the first to issue its own ban, barring entry to the country for Russian nationals who have Schengen visas issued by Estonia. So far, it has not stopped them from visiting other nations on an Estonia-issued Schengen visa, and still allows access to Russian holders of non-Estonian issued Schengen visas. Finland announced on August 17 that it would cut Russian visa issuance by 90 percent. Latvia, Lithuania, the Czech Republic and Denmark have also expressed support for various degrees of bans.
The horrors of Bucha, Mariupol, and countless other devastated Ukrainian towns and cities understandably evoke an emotional response, and Europe does have a moral obligation to support Ukrainians after decades of economic interdependence with Moscow that has paid for Putin’s war. The EU’s eastern members legitimately fear the Russian threat on their doorstep. Marin is leading Finland into NATO after decades of neutrality. The EU’s eastern states are also right to advocate for ensuring that Ukrainian voices have a prominent position in the debate over the bloc’s response to Russian aggression.
However, it is clear that the present debate is being driven by emotional responses rather than reasonable policy. Former Estonian President Toomas Hendrick Ilves recently criticised a news report questioning the proposal for visa restrictions. He ended up mislabelling its editor as a Russian emigre. When she pointed out that she is Ukrainian, Ilves — once a leading advocate for a liberal resistance to Putinism — doubled-down instead.
Advancing proposals for banning Russian visas is a step in the wrong direction. If the horrors of war can eradicate our values, then Putin is winning.
Firstly, to enact such a ban so would be inherently illiberal. Every call for applying collective punishment to the Russian people over the acts of the Putin government is an endorsement of Donald Trump’s demagogic calls for a “Muslim ban” or Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s advocacy for barring refugees from Europe. We can and should not hold the people of Iraq and Syria responsible for the horrors of ISIL (ISIS). We should not further punish those who are forced to flee their homes due to hunger, war or despotism. We cannot let Putin’s aggression undermine Western liberalism, for that is precisely one of the aims of his campaign against the international order that Ukrainians are valiantly fighting to resist.
Secondly, such a ban would undermine the sanctions regime imposed on Moscow. Far too much of the debate on this issue has been sophomoric and focused on the misconception that sanctions are an instrument of regime change. What is important to understand is that sanctions are a way to weaken state capacity. The crippling of Russia’s banks, withdrawal of Western investment, and blocking access to the global dollar system are all ways to minimise the threat posed by Putin’s regime. Ensuring the best and brightest in Russia can flee Putin’s misrule further weakens the Russian state.
Finally, such a ban would play into Putin’s propaganda. The Kremlin has spent the last decade tightening its grip over the country’s media environment, and the final bastions of liberal and opposition criticism were shuttered or forced into exile after Putin’s escalation of the war against Ukraine in February. There are now likely thousands of Russian soldiers who have died on Ukraine’s battlefields who have known no national leader other than Putin, who was effectively in charge even when he was nominally prime minister between 2008 and 2012.
While many Russians are unlikely to be able to afford European travel given the disastrous state of the country’s economy, doorways should remain open. Russians who do manage to travel will see for themselves an alternate reality to that conjured by Putin’s spin doctors and state-television lackeys. It is hard to imagine people striving for an alternative if they do not know one exists. Without access for ordinary Russians to Europe, Putin would be able to invent even more grandiose and inane lies about Western realities.
Proponents of a ban have often argued that no tangible benefits have been observed from Russians visiting the EU or the broader West in the past. They argue it is only the economic elite who gain. But those in the Kremlin’s orbit who risk being sanctioned, or are already under sanctions, have already switched their travel to Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and other destinations they feel are outside the reach of such measures. Any EU restrictions on Russian travel would affect, among others, the country’s intellectual and cultural elite — many of whom are now seen as enemies by Putin. As Putin’s war looks likely to turn into a quagmire, the Kremlin will find new targets at home to blame for its failings abroad. Abandoning them to this plight is unjustifiable.
Visa bans should not come to pass. But EU members and other allies of Ukraine could take one step to mitigate the risk that supporters of Russia’s war will seek to exploit access to Europe. A special fund should be set up for the defence of Ukraine, funded by Russian nationals’ visa application fees. This will not have a meaningful impact on Kyiv’s dire fiscal position — another result of Putin’s aggression — but would likely prompt the Kremlin to actually enforce its own ban on state employees travelling abroad to these countries. It would also disincentivise those seeking to advance themselves in Putin’s autarky from travelling to Europe.
Putin has made clear that his war against Ukraine is also a battle against the values of liberalism and internationalism. Sacrificing those ideals won’t help defeat his aggression — and will end up weakening Europe.