What are the arguments for and against an EU visa ban for Russians?

·7-min read
What are the arguments for and against an EU visa ban for Russians?

The European Union has recently made it harder for Russians to visit the bloc, scrapping a 2007 visa agreement with Moscow.

Although it stopped short of a ban, Russians will now face more costs, delays and hurdles in getting a short stay visa for the Schengen area, which EU policymakers claim will drastically cut their number.

But is this even the right approach?

Euronews spoke to three experts about the arguments for and against restricting or banning EU visa access for Russia’s some 144 million people.

What are the arguments in favour of visa bans for Russians?

‘Security risks’

One argument, voiced particularly loudly by Russia’s neighbours, is that allowing Russians to enter the EU unfettered and free poses a security threat.

With Russia and Europe sparring over Ukraine, Dr Kristi Raik, director at the Estonian International Centre for Defence and Security, told Euronews that Russian operatives may use tourist visas to infiltrate the EU and conduct “covert influence operations”.

Since the early 2000s, Russian assailants have been accused of carrying out several assassinations in Europe, including of Putin critic Alexander Litvinenko in 2006, arriving on European soil with tourist visas.

Complicating matters is a massive loophole in the current rules.

Although some individual EU countries are trying to put in place complete travel bans, they are struggling to stop Russians from entering their borders from other member states, even if they consider them a security threat, since they are in the Schengen zone.

According to Dr Raik, partial restrictions, particularly EU flight bans, have turned countries sharing a land border with Russia’s neighbours, notably Estonia and Finland, into transit states, which forces them to shoulder a “big burden” in screening these individuals.

“The volume [of Russians arriving] is so large, that it is not possible to properly check all of them and assess security concerns,” she said. “Yet now is the time we need to be even more careful.”

Schengen states can stop people with visas from other Schengen countries entering under Article 6.1(e) of the Schengen borders code.

‘Show some European metal towards Russia’

Visa bans could ramp up the pressure on Moscow and boost the influence of the EU, according to the experts.

According to Dr Raik, such “harsher measures” will create “dissatisfaction” in Russian society, especially among more affluent and powerful groups, who can then lean on the regime to change course in Ukraine.

Growing up in the USSR, which forbade people from leaving, Raik said she knows how effective this could be from her own experience.

“I remember very well that not being able to travel abroad mattered a lot to people,” she said.

Dr Benjamin Tallis, a specialist in international politics and security, affiliated with the German Council on Foreign Relations, says visa bans also make the EU look stronger and more resolute in the face of Russian aggression.

A visa ban is “actually about realigning our power and saying we are sick of fighting the Kremlin with our hands tied behind our backs,” he said, describing them as a weapon in the “arsenal of democracy”.

Dmitri Lovetsky/Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved
A train taking Russian tourists to the border with Finland, Feb 17, 2021. - Dmitri Lovetsky/Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

Europe will appear firmer in the eyes of Russia partly because of the economic hit it will take in losing flushed Russian tourists, but also because the move would end Europe’s double standards towards Russia, says Dr Tallis.

“It shows that Europeans have had enough of laughing in our faces,” he told Euronews.

“Europeans are sick of seeing very rich Russians flaunting their wealth, having a lovely time, at the same time as their country is prosecuting a war of aggression in Ukraine.”

Before the war, London was a notorious playground for Russia’s super-rich, especially in swanky areas such as Kensington and Westminster, which gained the nickname Londongrad.

‘Stand with Ukraine’

The final argument is that restricting or banning Russian visitors to the EU is a strong show of support for Ukraine.

“A visa ban is something we can do to show we clearly stand with Ukraine,” says Dr Tallis, adding this was the most important reason why one should happen immediately.

He continued: “Russia was counting on a degradation of European support for Ukraine over time … this measure would really show that Europe is in it for the long haul.”

Ukraine has consistently called for Europe to forbid all Russian travellers, with Zelenskyy saying they should “live in their own world until they change their philosophy.”

Such a gesture could spur Ukraine to win on the battlefield – with Dr Raik noting that many major changes in Russia have taken place following military defeat – and would be more moral, she argues.

“It feels wrong to see that the Russian elite is enjoying life in Europe as if nothing happened, while killing, torture, raping and looting of Ukraine by Russians continues,” she said.

What are the arguments against visa bans for Russians?

‘We need to protect those who may need to flee’

The first reason against a travel ban put forward by the experts is that this policy may shut the door to the very Russians who are opposed to the war and Putin’s regime.

Unable to get tourist visas, these individuals may struggle to leave Russia. In extreme cases, Russians who get into trouble with the authorities for criticising the status quo may find it difficult to reach safety in Europe.

“When considering these kinds of blanket approaches, we need to think about which individuals are going to be affected,” said Professor of International Politics and Policy at UCL, Brad Blitz. “In many cases, these are people who are fleeing persecution and in need of protection.

He pointed to the “large numbers” of young people, sexual and religious minorities who are now trying to leave Russia, suggesting that for some a tourist visa might be the only way out.

Following the Ukraine invasion, the number of Russians applying for asylum in the EU doubled from 670 in February to 1,335 in March, according to data from Eurostat.

This figure has remained high ever since.

‘Positive engagement’

An outright ban on Russian visitors also prevents positive engagements between Russians and Europeans – something which could potentially lead to progressive change.

Prof Blitz suggests that, if the EU slams the door, there will be fewer opportunities for Russian academics, artists, teachers, journalists, NGO workers – people he calls the “vanguard” of society – to exchange ideas, while those in the West could lose site of Russia’s “great” artistic and literary contributions to the world.

Bernd von Jutrczenka/(c) Copyright 2022, dpa (www.dpa.de). Alle Rechte vorbehalten
Pussy riot an anti-Kremlin and feminist punk bank hold a concert in Berlin, Germany, May 12, 2022. - Bernd von Jutrczenka/(c) Copyright 2022, dpa (www.dpa.de). Alle Rechte vorbehalten

Visiting Russia throughout the 2000s, Prof Blitz told Euronews how he thought Russians had changed through more openness and contact with the outside world, though he recognised that increasing state repression had made things harder in recent years.

Although she disagreed with this idea, believing it naive, Dr Raik said this line of thinking was behind Germany and France’s resistance to an all-out ban.

They believe in the EU’s transformative power through engagement and people-to-people contacts, she argued, which itself forged ties between Paris and Berlin once thought unthinkable.

‘Propaganda victory’

Visas bans could serve to draw Russians closer to the regime, according to the experts.

Should the EU bar Russian visitors Prof Blitz said this would play into the hands of “Russian propagandists”, with the “Kremlin almost certainly blaming the west for the fallout”.

“It’s only going to help Putin’s narrative in terms of self-victimisation,” he said. “That the world is against Russia, which is trying to clamp down on us, while we are the only ones defending the world against Nazism.

In May, former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev claimed "hatred" was motivating western sanctions, showing that the pair could never be at peace.

"At the heart of these decisions is hatred for Russia - for Russians, for all its inhabitants,” he wrote on Telegram. “Hate [for] our culture. Hence the cancellation of Tolstoy, Chekhov, Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich. So it was, almost always."