Europeans Debate Barring Russian Tourists Over the Invasion of Ukraine

BRUSSELS — A proposal that the European Union ban visas for all Russian tourists because of the Ukraine invasion has set off a debate in the continent’s capitals about morality, legality, collective guilt and the use of power.

Already, some nations, like Estonia, are implementing their own bans, canceling some visas and refusing to allow Russian tourists to enter. Other countries, like Germany, argue a blanket ban will hurt Russians opposed to President Vladimir V. Putin and his war. Still others say the European Union cannot afford to show divisions over the issue and needs to come up with a consensus policy.

Further fueling the debate, the Czech government, which holds the current presidency of the European Union, will raise the proposal with foreign ministers at the end of this month.

Beyond the legal and moral issues raised by the proposed ban, suggested this month by President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, lies a more practical question: would it have the intended effect, as its proponents say, of driving home to the Russian people the costs of the war begun by their autocratic president, Vladimir V. Putin. Or would it, as critics say, produce the opposite result by antagonizing and alienating Russians, while reinforcing Mr. Putin’s claims that the West is trying to destroy Russia.

Benjamin Tallis, a Berlin-based analyst, argued that bans would not just stop Russians from taking European vacations while their troops kill Ukrainians, but would also provide a chance for Europeans to use their power for moral and strategic ends.

“A ban is a really strong show of resolve,” he said. “The European Union is very conscious of its openness and transformative power, and shutting that down is a powerful sign.”

It would tell Russians, “travel to Europe is a privilege, and you value it, and we’re going to take it away,” he said. “Power begets power, and in general the E.U. and some states, especially Germany, are very shy about using the real power they do have.”

Lithuania’s foreign minister, Gabrielius Landsbergis, has argued that if the Russians who oppose the war were compelled to stay home, they could help bring about change. Yet polls indicate the war is popular among most Russians, who generally get their news from state media.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany criticized the proposal on Monday, saying “this is Putin’s war” and “not the Russian people’s.” It was “important to us to understand that there are a lot of people fleeing from Russia because they are disagreeing with the Russian regime,” he said.

In Russia, too, there has been considerable reaction, with many dissidents opposing a blanket ban.

Russian tourists visiting St. Mark’s square in Venice in 2020. The European Union barred Russian planes in response to the invasion almost six months ago.Credit…Renata Brito/Associated Press

A ban could face legal challenges. Sarah Ganty, a visiting professor at the Central European University in Vienna, argued that comprehensive ban would be illegal under E.U. law. And Gérard Araud, a former French ambassador to the United States and the United Nations, asserted that “collective punishment is contrary to international law” and that a ban “has no realistic, achievable goal.”

He added: “It is contrary to European values to randomly punish innocent individuals — it is not because the other side doesn’t respect any values that we should forget ours.”

Some proponents of a ban contend the European Union has largely run out of new sanctions to impose on Russia and Mr. Putin’s circle. Restrictions on technology and banking, done in concert with Washington, have hurt Russia’s economy badly, and the West is isolating Russia diplomatically.

Our Coverage of the Russia-Ukraine War

  • On the Ground: Ukraine has recently shifted its combat strategy with the help of long-range Western weapons, striking deep behind enemy lines to deplete Russia’s combat potential.
  • Crimea: Attacks by Ukrainian forces have tested security on the Black Sea peninsula, which was illegally annexed by Russia in 2014 and has become a vital staging ground for the invasion.
  • Clandestine Resistance: Ukrainian guerrilla fighters are spotting targets, sabotaging rail lines and killing those deemed collaborators as they seek to unnerve Russian forces.
  • Training Abroad: In England, military trainers are teaching essential battlefield skills to Ukrainian recruits heading into the fight back home.

But critics say the European Union should first enforce existing sanctions. The most important, on the importation of all Russian energy sources except coal, contain many exceptions, have been delayed or have not yet come into force, providing billions in funds to the Kremlin.

After Mr. Zelensky raised the visa ban idea, it was taken up by leaders of countries close to Russia, which with the exception of Finland were occupied by Moscow after World War II.

Most prominent among them are Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Finland and Poland, which share land borders with Russia. They have had to handle a relatively large influx of Russian tourists wanting to enter Europe, because Brussels banned all flights between Russia and the European Union. Once they enter the European Union, those tourists can fly elsewhere inside Europe’s free travel zone, called the Schengen area.

The proposal has caught the attention of the estimated 15 percent of Russians who travel abroad, many of whom also tend to oppose Mr. Putin. Tens of thousands of people have fled Russia since the invasion, knowing that to criticize the war could bring years in prison and heavy fines.

Banning Russian tourists would do nothing to weaken Mr. Putin, argued Viktor A. Shenderovich, a satirist who left Russia this year.

“Putin is out of reach, but you can reach a teacher, a doctor, Putin’s hostages, people who have been Putin’s hostages for quite a while, and make their lives even harder,” he said.

He was among the prominent figures on the Russian Anti-War Committee whoasserted a ban would “clearly play to the Kremlin’s advantage.”

Russian tourists in Paris in 2020. Some proponents of a visa ban argue that it would largely affect middle-class and wealthy Russians, and not poorer people.Credit…Michel Euler/Associated Press

Russian state media has responded with mockery. On the “60 Minutes” show on Monday, the presenter Olga Skabeyeva said Europe had switched from trying to isolate Russia to isolating all Russians. Ban supporters, she said, “stabbed in the back the Russian fifth column and said that visas for Europe should not be issued even to the Russian opposition.”

On social media, some Russians said a ban would be immoral, and some suggested Europeans were being hypocritical, more willing to stop people than the gas that funds the war.

“You can remain useful for your country while being in another place,” Ivan Pavlov, a human rights lawyer who also left Russia, wrote on Facebook. “Thanks to the internet, Russians abroad have even more opportunities in this regard than those who remain.”

But Toomas Hendrik Ilves, the former president of Estonia,told the BBC a visa ban would be “one of the most humane kinds of sanctions, because it doesn’t affect poor Russians and affects the middle class and the rich ones.”

Radoslaw Sikorski, a former Polish foreign minister and now a European lawmaker, argued any restrictions should be agreed upon by Schengen-area members, “because the decisions of any one country affect everybody else.”

But Mr. Sikorski believes a ban is misguided. “The objective should be not only for Ukraine to defend itself, but for Russia to be transformed,” he said, noting the experience of Poles who, through travel, could compare life under communism to that in the West.

There are other options, he said, such as more stringent vetting procedures for Russians who apply for visas, and perhaps even requiring applicants to state they do not contribute to the war.

In fact, Estonia had already canceled many Schengen visas granted to Russians, and stopped issuing most new ones. But under Schengen rules, it cannot prevent Russians with visas granted in other Schengen countries from entering Estonia by land.

Latvia and Finland recently tightened their restrictions, with Finland cutting the visas it issues to Russians by 90 percent, to only 100 a day. Lithuania and the Czech Republic have paused issuing visas to most Russians.

For Mr. Zelensky, the matter is clear: Russians, he said, “should live in their own world until they change their philosophy.” Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, put the country’s position in blunt terms. Russians, he said this month, “must be deprived of the right to cross international borders until they learn to respect them.”

Steven Erlanger reported from Brussels, and Neil MacFarquhar from Istanbul. Alina Lobzina contributed reporting from Istanbul, Johanna Lemola from Helsinki and Carly Olson from New York.

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