The sight of often well-to-do Russian tourists shopping in Europe’s cities or relaxing on its beaches may seem sharply at odds with efforts to isolate the Moscow leadership and weaken Russia’s economy over its appalling aggression against Ukraine. Several northern and central European countries have restricted access to Russians, and are pushing for an EU-wide ban on visas for Russian tourists. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has also called for blocking visas, except on humanitarian grounds. The urge is understandable, but would be a mistake.
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. It bolsters the false Kremlin narrative that sanctions are not really about Ukraine but are a western plot to bring down Russia and its people. Even moderate Russians might turn against the EU.
As German chancellor Olaf Scholz has stated: “This is not the war of the Russian people, it is Putin’s war.” Though Russians have repeatedly voted Putin into office, the system he has created bombards them with pro-Kremlin propaganda and offers them few alternatives. Where democracies have tried to isolate other authoritarian regimes they have attempted to retain contacts with civil society, for example through student exchanges — to expose citizens, wherever possible, to an alternative system and worldview.
Many Russians on a two-week package tour will engage little with local people or media. But some will. Every chink of light that penetrates the blackout curtain of Kremlin lies is valuable.
Though reliable statistics are scarce, moreover, several hundred thousand Russians are estimated to have left their country since the war started, in unease or quiet protest over what is happening. Many are young and well-qualified, constituting a brain drain that will amplify the economic hit from sanctions. Some will become part of a growing liberal-minded diaspora that may one day return to try to build a better, post-Putin Russia. Some departed to émigré hotspots such as Armenia, Georgia, Turkey and Dubai, but many set out for the EU, initially on tourist visas, to look for jobs.
Closing off the tourist route would make it more difficult for others to leave for the EU, even if work or humanitarian visas are left open. It might be argued that Russians have already had six months to get out if they wanted to. But the longer the war lasts, the more waverers may finally head for the exits. The Kremlin may yet also step up its repression against its own people.
EU foreign ministers will discuss the visa issue at an informal meeting in Prague this week; an EU summit could take concrete steps in October. With member states divided, and questions over whether a tourist ban across the Schengen zone is legally possible, one option might be simply to suspend a 2007 visa facilitation agreement with Russia. By making visas much harder and costlier to obtain, even that could sharply reduce flows of Russians. Better to leave the door open for most but expand bans on government, military and security officials who choose to remain part of the Putin system.
Further sanctions may still be needed to squeeze the Kremlin’s ability to prosecute its vicious war. But the guiding principle should remain that these are directed at the war machine and the economy, not at shutting ordinary Russians out of Europe.