Giving Russians travel visas is a security risk the world can’t afford

Russians can wage a war against their neighbors, or they can travel freely to the West — but they should not be allowed to do both. One does not get to try to destroy Europe’s rules-based order and simultaneously benefit from its perks.

While direct air and train links between Russia and the European Union have been severed, Russian citizens holding a valid Schengen visa can still enter the bloc by land through Finland, Estonia or Latvia. And there’s been a considerable uptick in traffic, particularly in Finland, which saw some 176,000 border crossings from Russia in July alone.

Finland is among a small number of EU countries that continue to issue Russians tourist visas. Unlike, say, Poland and the Czech Republic, which have suspended visa issuance save for humanitarian cases, Finland gave more than 10,000 new Schengen visas to Russians just last month.

As Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas said, the absence of a coordinated EU response means that Finland, Estonia and Latvia — the only remaining land access points from Russia into the EU — carry much of the burden, as well as the risk, of accepting contingents of Russian nationals onto their territory.

Kallas is right: Visiting Europe “is a privilege, not a human right.” And so is visiting the United Kingdom and the United States — both of which have all but suspended issuing Russian nationals tourist visas.

To be sure, there should be paths toward political asylum for Russians fleeing President Vladimir Putin’s persecution. Encouraging brain drain through work and immigration visas to carefully vetted, high-skilled Russians would be helpful, too.

Simultaneously, a coordinated ban on short-stay visits should be a no-brainer, given reasonable humanitarian exceptions, just in the EU — and include the cancellation of currently valid visas besides a stop to new ones.

Officials must also minimize existing travel loopholes that continue to make the West accessible to Russian visitors, including through threats of secondary sanctions against entities such as the Hungary-based carrier Wizz Air, which is planning to reopen its flights between Moscow and Abu Dhabi, providing Russians with a low-cost, albeit indirect, route into the EU.

A passenger is seen at Vnukovo International Airport.
Finland saw 176,000 border crossings from Russia in July.
Sergei Bobylev/

The purpose of such measures is not merely symbolic. It is, first and foremost, a matter of security.

It is likely, for instance, that Russian operatives two weeks ago targeted the Bulgaria depot of Emilian Gebrev, a Bulgarian arms dealer who survived a 2015 Novichok poisoning — a fifth explosion at his company’s facilities in the recent past. In the Baltic states, too, sizable Russian-speaking minorities represent a security risk, which Russian nationals’ ability to travel freely, establish contact and foment unrest only exacerbate.

In Budapest, the Russia-controlled International Investment Bank enjoys diplomatic privileges and immunities comparable to other multilateral institutions in the West — say, the World Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development — while widely seen as a vehicle for espionage and influence-peddling.

A travel ban wouldn’t plug all existing loopholes. But the effectiveness of any sanctions regime tends to deteriorate over time, as adjustments are made and workarounds are found. For that reason alone, it is important that Western powers signal they are serious about severing their economic and, yes, personal and cultural ties with Russia for as long as it remains an aggressor in its war against Ukraine.

To talk about “collective punishment” of Russians is beside the point. While the regime’s propaganda is effective, popular support for Russian imperialism runs deep. “Ordinary” Russians thus carry some responsibility for atrocities committed by their government and their armed forces in their war of conquest — just as “ordinary” Serbs and “ordinary” Germans did during the 1990s and the 1940s, respectively.

Certainly, dissidents deserve our help, but most Russians appear to look at the “special military operation” with indifference, if not outright enthusiasm. In other words, this is not just Putin’s but Russia’s war.

Just how ordinary Russians and Russian elites react to a tightening of travel restrictions is a matter of speculation. Yet no less speculative is the widely accepted notion that Russians are somehow, by their nature, keen to suffer for the motherland’s sake and thus bound to wait Western sanctions out.

More important, any concern about the nation’s radicalization, if cornered and isolated further, flies in the face of the fact that 20 years of engagement, trade and integration of Russia into Western structures have produced a regime that is imperialist, revisionist and a threat to the world. Besides economic sanctions, a travel ban stands a chance of making the Russians understand that they cannot have their cake and eat it too.

Dalibor Rohac is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Twitter: @DaliborRohac

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