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A visa ban won’t accomplish what Ukraine wants

Jamie Dettmer is opinion editor at POLITICO Europe. 

In 1976, the dissident Russian writer Vladimir Bukovsky arrived in London. His opposition to the Communists had started at an early age, being thrown out of school in his final year for editing an unauthorized magazine, and by the time he arrived in Britain, he’d spent more than a decade in psychiatric prison-hospitals, labor camps and jails in the Soviet Union.   

After a high-profile international campaign, Bukovsky had finally been expelled by Soviets, who exchanged him for a jailed Chilean communist leader, and soon after arriving in Switzerland in handcuffs, he came to Britain, where he was welcomed with open arms. I was among those who greeted him at the House of Commons, where I worked at the time as an intern, and was his proud but humble guide throughout the day. 

I now wonder if Bukovsky would be so warmly received today.  

Thanks to his prominent opposition and powerful resistance to the communist system, maybe he would. But what about lesser-known dissidents, or the “ordinary” Russians currently voluntarily embracing exile rather than kowtowing to Russian President Vladimir Putin, or those who feel the only way they can protest the war is to flee their country?  

Many Russians who are already here complain they are encountering hostility due to their nationality. Campaigns — some encouraged by Ukrainian officials — have been mounted to cancel Russian culture and science, and Russian students at European universities say Russophobia has become almost normalized, accusing their institutions of actively contributing to discrimination. 

Indeed, European arms haven’t been so wide in welcome for refuseniks, and some Europeans are currently advocating shutting the door to Russians completely, in what increasingly smacks of an exercise in collective punishment. 

But not only is this antithetical to classic liberal values, which frown upon targeting an entire ethnic or political group for the actions of a few, collective punishment is also specifically prohibited by treaty in both international and non-international armed conflicts — notably in Article 3 and additional protocols of the Geneva Conventions.  

However, this hasn’t deterred Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy from calling for a European Union-wide ban on visas for Russians, arguing the bloc must go further to isolate Russia for its unprovoked assault on Ukraine. 

“The most important sanctions are to close the borders — because the Russians are taking away someone else’s land,” he told the Washington Post this week, adding that Russians should “live in their own world until they change their philosophy.”  

And some are, indeed, trying to do so, but Zelenskyy added that even those who have fled Russia due to their opposition to the war shouldn’t be exempt from this ban. “Whichever kind of Russian . . . make them go to Russia,” he said, arguing all citizens shoulder some blame for Putin’s war. “They’ll say, ‘This [war] has nothing to do with us. The whole population can’t be held responsible, can it?’ It can. The population picked this government and they’re not fighting it, not arguing with it, not shouting at it,” he said. 

“Picked” is an odd word to use for a repressive regime that’s run rigged and contrived elections, smashed independent and critical media, shuttered NGOs, assassinated opponents at home and abroad, and imprisoned dissidents and other inconvenient critics, including Alexei Navalny, Vladimir Kara-Murza and academics like Gulag historian Yury Dmitriyev. 

Nonetheless, the Ukrainian leader’s call has now been taken up by Estonia. “Stop issuing tourist visas to Russians. Visiting #Europe is a privilege, not a human right,” Prime Minister Kaja Kallas tweeted, a day after Zelenskyy’s appeal. And on Thursday, the country announced it would, indeed, stop issuing visas to Russian tourists.

Meanwhile, though wary of unilaterally refusing Schengen visas to Russians and wanting the cover of an EU ban to do so, the Finnish government is now facing mounting domestic political pressure to shutter its borders. Opposition politician Kai Mykkanen says normal relations between Russia and Finland aren’t possible now, stating, “It’s the right thing to show Russians that they also, as a nation, have a responsibility for sustaining the current regime.” 

Currently, individual member countries, including Poland, the Czech Republic, along with the Baltic nations, have all imposed restrictions on issuing short-term visas for Russian nationals. Despite the European Commission saying it’s up to individual member countries to decide whether to issue Schengen visas, Estonia, Finland and Latvia are still lobbying hard for an EU-wide ban, and the issue is now likely come up at the European Council for formal discussion next month. 

But what would such a ban accomplish, and if imposed, would it even be effective in reshaping the war or curtailing the conflict? Would it help to determine the outcome? 

If it could shorten the war, or lead to Putin’s ouster, then maybe one could stomach the collective punishment aspect of a ban. But there’s no evidence being offered that it would.  

Ukrainian rage is completely understandable, as is Kyiv’s wish to do — or try — anything it can to punish Russia for its unprovoked invasion and barbaric conduct of war, which has seen Russian forces shell residential districts and execute and rape non-combatants. 

The sight of Russians vacationing in Europe or circumventing economic sanctions by shopping in EU countries or establishing new lives in Europe sticks in the Ukrainian craw and is inexplicable for those who’ve seen partners, relatives and friends die, and their own lives wrecked. But Russians who have fled — or want to — say they, too, are victims, although they emphasize not anywhere near the same degree as Ukrainians. Their lives are also being wrecked.

And Kremlin opponents, including Leonid Volkov, an aide to jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, are critical of visa bans. “Western politicians feel the pressure of voters in their skins. Voters demand that ‘something must be done’ about Russia. Then let’s come up with a quick fix solution: Deny visas to Russians and hope that this will turn the Russians against Putin,” Volkov complained. 

He and others doubt it would — and fear these visa bans risk feeding into the Kremlin propaganda line that Europe and the United States are just ingrained Russophobes. Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov already did just that this week.

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