30 Aug 2022

Comment on proposals for bans on EU visas for Russians

It is being reported that the EU foreign ministers are expected to reach a consensus today on restrictions on visas for Russian travellers within the Schengen area, supposedly as a rebuke for Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Ministers are expected in most reports to make it more difficult for Russians travelling to the Schengen area to obtain visas, but to stop short of an outright visa ban, which some of the more extreme voices from Eastern and Central European and Baltic Member States have been demanding. Meanwhile, certain Irish MEPs have opportunistically sought publicity by joining the extremist chorus, calling for the Irish government to support an outright ban on visas for Russians.

Either decision - to restrict or ban Russian visas - is a mistake. As the Financial Times makes clear in a Sunday editorial, visa bans would target civilians and affect civilians, not Russian officials.

Though sanctions aimed at degrading Vladimir Putin’s ability to wage his war have inevitably affected ordinary Russian people, they have not targeted them directly. Even bans on Russian planes entering EU airspace and on supplying parts for its aircraft aimed to weaken its economy, not keep Russians out. A visa ban is different, because it specifically targets civilians... Even moderate Russians might turn against the EU.
It is unclear how visa restrictions are supposed to alter Russian government policy. The only arguments that are being made for doing this appeal to the idea that Russian civilians, having elected their government, bear collective responsibility for the invasion of Ukraine, and that they must therefore suffer for it. The Financial Times quotes an unnamed EU official that "[i]t is inappropriate for Russian tourists to stroll in our cities, on our marinas. We have to send a signal to the Russian population that this war is not OK, it is not acceptable."

While it is not made explicit, the idea being outlined here - and in the calls by Eastern and Central European and Baltic politicians - is the idea of collective punishment, something which is not only widely accepted to be morally abhorrent, but is prohibited under international law. It is also difficult to fathom how confining Russians to the Russian Federation, where they are far less likely to meet other Europeans or encounter open criticism of their government’s actions, “sends” any “signal” that the war in Ukraine is “not acceptable.”

In reality, any move to interfere with visas for Russian citizens will send a very different signal. By separating or making life more difficult for millions of binational families, this proposal will alienate Russians who are friendly to the West, and confirm for them that the EU is Russophobic. This is by no means a niche view. It is shared by the governments of France and Germany, and even by Alexei Navalny, the imprisoned pro-Western opposition campaigner, whose words are normally seized upon by EU leaders, but now fall on deaf ears.

The real motive for the calls for visa bans has nothing to do with stopping war in Ukraine, or trying to correct Russian policy. It is instead a transparently vindictive measure, driven by extremist political forces. It is a policy led by emotion, not by practicality or reason. It stands to entrench Russian public opinion behind the Kremlin's position, even as it feeds toxic nationalist fervour in Europe. It is vindictive, counterproductive and stupid. Irish politicians, knowing our own history, should be ashamed to support it.