“Stop issuing tourist visas to Russians. Visiting Europe is a privilege, not a human right.” Kaja Kallas, the Estonian prime minister, wrote on Twitter last week. Russians should “live in their own world until they change their philosophy,” Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a recent interview calling for the Western countries to ban all Russian citizens. However, wouldn’t letting Russians “live in their own world” be the best possible gift to Vladimir Putin?
The pressure to forbid the Russians from entering the European Union (EU), is mounting. A number of the EU countries, particularly those close to Russia, are increasingly advocating for a restrictive approach to Russian nationals. Finland, Latvia, and Estonia have called for an EU-wide ban on Russian citizens entering the bloc’s territory. Estonia and Latvia have stopped issuing visas to Russians while the Czech Republic has limited issuing visas. Estonia has called for isolating Russia to raise the costs of its aggression against Ukraine. The visa issue will likely be discussed when EU foreign ministers meet in the Czech Republic at the end of August for their annual Gymnich summit.
Ms. Kallas’s comments have angered Russian politicians. She responded by noting that the “Russian elite's critical reaction to calls to ban Schengen visas for Russians shows it is an effective sanction tool.” Latvia is a former member of the Soviet Union that has adopted a tough stance towards Russia. This month, it designated Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism and moved to restrict the use of the Russian language. Estonia and Latvia have implemented their own official visa ban on Russian citizens even while ethnic Russians make up 25 percent of Estonia and Latvia’s tiny population. Both countries are already spending a third of their military budget on supporting Ukraine and are looking for more ways to support Kyiv.
However, a blanket ban against issuing travel visas to Russian nationals could be counterproductive by alienating ethnic Russians and reversing integration efforts in the Baltic states. This approach is already having negative effects. Last week, Estonian authorities removed a Soviet-era memorial in response to the rising tensions with the Russian-speaking majority in the border city of Narva. Alienating ethnic Russians could also provide fuel for Russian state propaganda. Putin has famously called the collapse of the Soviet Union “the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” as tens of millions of Russians found themselves outside of Russian territory. Putin ostensibly went to war in Ukraine to “help” the Russian speakers living in the eastern Donbass region. He would be happy to hear Russian speakers in the Baltics are unhappy with being treated as second-class citizens.
The Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu said that “when you surround an army leave an exit, do not make the foe to fight desperately.” A ban on Russian visas is certainly a move that contradicts Sun Tzu’s wisdom. Should ordinary Russians find that there is no exit for them to Europe, they may be less inclined to take defiant acts. Russian elites will always find a way to travel through Europe and many of them already have second passports. It is ordinary Russians who have little influence over their country’s politics that would be hurt the most. Europe has long been a refuge for Russian dissidents, military deserters, and anti-war activists. If there is no safe place to run to, will future activists be as bold?
“Don’t you want this isolation? Then go and live there. This is the only way to influence Putin,” Zelenskyy said in a challenge to ordinary Russians. However, Russian anti-war activists argue that a visa travel ban would only hamper their goals. As one pointed out to the Guardian, “Russians need to unite abroad, form anti-war alliances and speak out. You can’t just topple a nuclear power like Russia right now from the inside. It is just unrealistic.” It is worth mentioning that thousands of Russians bravely took to the streets to protest the invasion of Ukraine but they were crushed immediately by Russia’s robust security apparatus and more than 16,000 protestors have been detained since the start of the war.
Another Russian anti-war activist interviewed by the Guardian argued that “the experience of the Soviet Union shows that closing borders doesn’t lead to overthrow of the regime.” In fact, isolating Russians directly helps the regime alienate its population from the free world and expose them to more propaganda. The major revolutions of the twentieth century, such as the Russian, Cuban, and Iranian revolutions, were prepared by their leaders from the outside. It is hard to imagine that there would have been a Bolshevik revolution in 1917 if Lenin was not allowed to consolidate the Bolshevik party in Europe before returning to Russia when the time was ripe.
Russia has experienced an exodus of activists, intellectuals, and educated professionals since the outbreak of the war though at a smaller scale compared to when millions of Russians fled the October Revolution of 1917. Some 300,000 are estimated to have left Russia since the start of the war, most of them educated and sophisticated youth. This “brain drain” is already affecting the Russian technology industry which is seeing its brightest minds depart for other opportunities abroad while also facing international sanctions. A significant number of these emigrants are Russia’s most talented individuals and a natural gift for any country that hosts them. Therefore, it is not surprising that President Joe Biden is considering waiving certain visa requirements to welcome Russians who have left since the start of the war. The struggling European economy can only benefit from opening its door to these people. Georgia is already trying to seize this opportunity to become the “Portugal of the East.” Additionally, banning Russian travel visas would inadvertently help Moscow increase the value of the ruble since anyone leaving Russia would have to exchange them for foreign currency.
Finally, a call for an EU-wide blanket ban on Russians, which requires approval from the bloc’s twenty-seven members, is unlikely to succeed. German chancellor Olaf Scholz has already rejected the proposal. It is also hard to imagine that Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán, whose government has friendly relations with Russia, would ever allow such a resolution to pass. Unrealistic efforts to ban Russian travel visas could fail and give a free victory to Russia’s propaganda machine that could point to the West’s failure to isolate it internationally.
For the West to support Ukraine, it needs to first draw a distinct line between the acts of aggression committed by Russia’s undemocratic government and the Russian people, who have suffered from these policies. Blaming, shaming, and punishing them for a war that they despise sends a bad signal to any Russian who wants to stand against it while nullifying the sacrifices the Russian pro-democracy movement has made in recent years. Instead, helping Russians to flee the country and placing smart sanctions on Russia’s military-industrial base is the best way to slow Moscow’s war machine.
Alireza Nouri works as an international development NGO and IGO advisor, and has been involved with the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, among others. His research focus is on geopolitics and international relations.