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Visa Bans on Russians Will Strengthen the Putin Regime

Policies should be chosen to help Ukraine win the war, not support Russian interests.

Travelers waiting to board a bus to Helsinki in St. Petersburg. Peter Kovalev / TASS

A disturbing variation of the sanctions regime against Russia has emerged in Europe, and Eastern Europe in particular: calls for a visa ban on all Russian citizens to keep them out of Europe. The notion that this will send a message to all Russians that the actions of their government are wrong and thus pressure them to organize against the Putin regime is tempting. Ultimately, though, it is not just misguided, but dangerous.

The idea of collective responsibility is deeply troubling on moral grounds alone, as has been widely argued already. But it’s also dangerous from a practical, policy aspect. If the issue is about helping Ukraine win, then the focus should be on how keeping average Russians out of Europe helps or harms that goal.  As we already see, existing travel restrictions have already played into the Kremlin’s hands.  

“Change their philosophy”

The debate has been narrowed down to tourist visa bans, which probably will not be adopted at the EU level. But since the invasion, the issue has really been about restricting entry to Russians on any grounds. First European countries closed off their air space to flights to and from Russia. In February, the Czech Republic stopped issuing most visas to Russians. Last week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky urged all Western countries to ban Russian travelers, who, he said, should “live in their own world until they change their philosophy.” Since then, Estonia, Latvia and Finland have proposed an EU-wide ban on Schengen visas for Russian citizens. Estonia, meanwhile, blocked entry to 50,000 Russians with existing visas. “Visiting Europe is a privilege, not a human right,” said Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, while Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin affirmed that “it’s not right that at the same time as Russia is waging an aggressive, brutal war of aggression in Europe, Russians can live a normal life, travel in Europe.”

Human capital

There is no evidence to support claims that free movement of average Russians across borders somehow emboldens the Kremlin or reconciles the Russian people to the Kremlin’s rule. Existing visa restrictions, in fact, are already failing to show any positive effects. There are other places Russians can go on holiday, after all, and this also will do wonders for a domestic tourist industry that the Kremlin has been trying to grow and, by extension, for the Russian economy.

Besides, even if the debate is ostensibly just about tourist visas, it will not simply affect prospective tourists. Anecdotal accounts suggest that many of the highly skilled Russians making new lives for themselves abroad, denying their human capital to Russia, first come on tourist visas to Europe to scope out prospects and perhaps line up sponsors. It is a crucial escape route.

The mass exodus of Russians since the invasion is certainly a worry for the Russian government. To continue waging its war, its economy needs the younger, skilled workers that might want to leave the country. Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin’s cabinet has been trying to stop the brain drain and lure IT workers back into the country with offers of subsidized state jobs and promises of money and stability. In Moscow, Mayor Sergei Sobyanin is doing much of the same, focusing his efforts on job creation to compensate for the jobs (and workers) lost when Western firms pulled out of Russia. Helped by Western travel restrictions and sanctions, the efforts seem to be working, and Mishustin has claimed that up to 85 percent of IT workers who fled initially have returned.

Lowering an Iron Curtain

Visa restrictions are already penalizing critics of the regime. Reassurances that there will still be asylum provisions for them are meaningless if they cannot get to Europe to claim it – tourist visas are one of the easiest ways for them to get out of Russia.

But more to the point, such restrictions are doing the Kremlin’s work for it.

In February and March, one of the drivers of the mass exodus of Russians was the fear that the Kremlin would close its borders or bring in exit visas, in effect resurrecting the Iron Curtain. Virtually overnight, Russia had gone from an authoritarian regime to a totalitarian one. The reason we are not seeing massive protests in Russia (although a lot more people protest than most in the West realize) is because of the classic totalitarian tactics of intimidation and isolation. Only a few need to be arrested under draconian new laws prohibiting criticism of the war for people to understand: If your “like” on Vkontakte or Twitter like won’t get you arrested, your coworker might snitch on you.

The idea that forcing Russians to stay home would somehow make them change Kremlin policy is questionable even if the Russian state were a democracy, and is outright ludicrous considering it is anything but. There is no historical evidence whatsoever that closed borders makes people push for democratic change. There is only evidence of the opposite.

A totalitarian regime, after all, also seeks to cut its people off from the outside world, and with good reason. The Soviet regime lowered the Iron Curtain to hammer home the point that resistance was futile: There is no way out, and in any case, the West is a hostile foe. This was, however, undermined by the fundamental contradiction that it was the Kremlin that was preventing people from leaving and banning Western products, not the other way around.

So far, the Kremlin has not had to resort to exit visas. Europe is doing that job for it by deliberately making it difficult for Russians to leave and by encouraging private companies to pull out of Russia and stop selling their products there. This has been enough to signal that “the West hates Russia.” All the Kremlin has had to do is sit back and amplify the messages being sent out of European capitals.

The costs of punishing Russians

If the goal of Western policy is to save Ukrainian lives, help them win the war, and make the Putin regime less of a security threat, then the merits of any sanctions regime should be considered in terms how they advance those goals. They amount to an impulse to do what feels good in the moment while entirely ignoring the policy effects or the costs.

Meanwhile, the borderline sadistic rhetoric that is often used in defense of the policy – that average Russians should be deprived of “normal lives” because Ukrainians are suffering – is chillingly reminiscent of the most violent Kremlin propaganda.

Ultimately, the self-indulgent policy of curtailing Russians’ travel constitutes a moral weakness that is in stark contrast to the West’s position vis-a-vis the Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War. Then, to fight the Communist regime and its aggression, engagement with Soviet citizens was encouraged and travel was facilitated under the Helsinki Final Act. Today, it seems that European leaders – constrained by the practicalities of their energy needs and finding it harder than they expected to gain traction on an authoritarian leader who feels he is in an existential political fight – are feeling angry and exasperated that they cannot, as they see it, adequately punish the Putin regime. Instead, they risk taking out their frustration on ordinary Russians in the false belief that such punishment costs it nothing. But it does. The Kremlin will be sure to exploit this weakness, and, indeed, is already doing so.

The views expressed in opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the position of The Moscow Times.

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