Four European countries bordering Russia recently issued a joint statement on new restrictions against Russian travellers. Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland all cite the national security threat created by allowing Russian tourists to enter Europe’s borders, as well as the moral responsibility of allowing Russian holidaymakers access to Europe during the brutal invasion of Ukraine by their state. The move, which is the first of its kind ever imposed in the European Union, comes after the EU announced it would create more obstacles and difficulties for Russians seeking EU visas. It forms the basis of a larger argument dividing Europe over the issue of Russian citizens being allowed to participate in daily life while their army wages an infernal war against the Ukrainian people.
According to Frontex, more than a million Russian citizens have crossed the border since the outbreak of war in February. Many of these incidents have occurred across land borders in Estonia and Finland, where Russians can catch flights further south to vacation destinations. It was relatively easy for them to do with Schengen visas. Once past the Finnish or Estonian border, tourists can then move freely between the 26 countries that make up the Schengen area. The Latvian foreign minister said the number of Russian citizens taking this route had “significantly increased” and the problem was becoming a “public security issue”. Russia’s other neighbors share this concern: Estonia halted the issuance of Russian tourist visas in August and Finland reduced the number of visas it issues to Russians by 90%. The motivations for such actions are clear. The Estonian Prime Minister underlined this in a recent statement to Time magazine – “What do the chemical attack in Salisbury in 2018, the explosion of a Czech arms depot in 2014 and the assassination of a Chechen dissident in Germany in 2019 have in common? Russian agents using European tourist visas.
Others argued that a Russian travel ban was not beneficial, arguing that travel could broaden Russians’ views and offer them a brief democratic respite from Russia’s authoritarian regime. A survey by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace found that young people were most likely to speak out against war – and a view of life in Europe could steer them away from the Kremlin doctrine of a starving EU. energy and hating Russia. . Moreover, critics say a ban would only fuel the persecution Russians believe they face from the West, providing Putin with more evidence of his “Russia-phobic Europe” propaganda. Countries like Cyprus, which receives a quarter of its visitors from Russia, opposed the ban. Spain and Portugal also disagreed, saying the record of ordinary Russians opposes Putin and his “war machine”.
The impact of this ban on most Russian citizens will not be severe. Around 30% of Russians hold an international passport, and in 2018 only one in ten Russians traveled abroad. While a ban may serve to further alienate Russians from European values, it will provide Ukraine with badly needed moral support as the invasion continues. President Zelensky has long called for a tourism ban. These restrictions act as another type of sanction against the Russian Federation and are one of the most effective non-combative means Europe has to show its support for Ukraine and its contempt for Russia.
The war will neither be won nor lost on the axis of tourist visa restrictions. On the contrary, this debate has evolved into a question of Russia’s collective responsibility in the war. To what extent can we justify imposing sanctions, restrictions and punishments on the Russian people for the war crimes that are committed in Ukraine? Are we projecting our own hopes for a resilient and silent majority onto Russian citizens? Will all-inclusive Mediterranean vacations really bring Russia back into a European ideology? Are we asking too much of millions of Russian citizens to rebel against an authoritarian regime that punishes insubordination with violence, imprisonment or death? Is it Putin’s war or Russia’s? These are the questions Europe must answer, as the atrocities in the East continue and the dark winter looms.