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Should Russian tourists be held responsible for Putin’s war?

Europe’s latest symbolic debate (and solution) over how to punish Russia for its Ukraine war.

Tourists take selfies in front of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, France, in July.
Sameer Al-Doumy/AFP via Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

Are Russians coming to Europe to tan on Mediterranean coasts as the Kremlin wages a brutal war in Ukraine — or are they escaping an autocratic regime and being exposed to European democratic values?

That is part of the debate the European Union just had, as leaders met in Prague to discuss the possibility of an EU-wide ban on Russian tourist visas. The debate divided the bloc. Western European countries like Germany and France opposed any ban that might punish ordinary Russians and play into Russian President Vladimir Putin’s anti-Western propaganda. Meanwhile, former Soviet states and those in Russia’s neighborhood — countries like Estonia and Finland — have pushed for a ban since most Russians are transiting through their territories, and they see depriving Russians of this privilege as putting another pressure point on Putin’s regime.

On Wednesday, the EU reached something of a compromise: Foreign ministers agreed to suspend a 2007 agreement that facilitated Russian visas to the Schengen zone — that is, the EU member-states without internal border controls. This will likely make it more difficult and more expensive for Russians to get tourist visas, but it isn’t a blanket ban. At the same time, European states bordering Russia can take their own measures to restrict visas, as some already have done.

Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign affairs chief, said “business as usual” can’t continue, with Russians coming to the EU for leisure or shopping trips. But the bloc did not “want to cut ourselves off from those Russians who are against the war in Ukraine.”

The EU found consensus on this issue, which, really, was more symbolic than substantive; no one really thinks Russian tourists are going to swing Putin’s decision to perpetrate war in Ukraine. But it was a reminder that Western solidarity, six months into the war, still takes work.

“The one thing that everyone agrees on in Europe is that we can’t change geography,” said Minna Ålander, a researcher at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs as of September 1. “Russia will stay our neighbor, and we will have to deal with Russia, one way or another, after this war ends at some point. But then there’s this fundamental disagreement on how to deal with Russia.”

Many European countries, Germany included, still see a need to maintain connections with Russia, and are very clear that punishment should focus on Putin and his cronies rather than on the rest of the Russian population. Others, especially those former Soviet states or those along Russia’s borders, more fully feel Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as an existential security threat and want to stop and deter Moscow as fully and deliberately as possible.

This visa ban debate hinged on this longstanding split. But, as many experts said, the debate over Russian tourists is a sideshow to larger questions on continued economic and military aid to Ukraine. And for that, greater tests are ahead: namely, the energy crisis already on Europe’s doorstep.

The case for and against banning visas for Russian tourists

On July 15, Russia lifted border coronavirus restrictions, just in time for summer travel season. Because of Western sanctions, Russian aircraft can’t fly over, or to and from, the European Union. So once those Covid restrictions were lifted, many Russians started crossing the border into places like Finland, to visit there and, as some reports have suggested, as a way to transit to other European countries, by, say catching a flight from Helsinki to Rome or Madrid. Though border crossings were reportedly still below pre-Covid levels in July, DW reported that, according to Finnish media, Russians have applied for almost 60,000 visas since the beginning of the war.

Travelers stand in front of a departures board at Helsinki-Vantaa Airport in Finland on August 19. Luxury sports cars are filling up the parking garage at Helsinki’s airport as Finland has become an important transit country for Russian tourists flying into Europe.
Alessandro Rampazzo/AFP via Getty Images

It is hard to say exactly how Russians are using these visas. Some have argued that some Russians might not be lying around on the beach. Instead, they may be artists, students, academics, or others who are using these visas as a pathway out of Russia to do the work or studies they can no longer do within it. “They want the opportunity to be able to work if possible in Europe,” said Judy Dempsey, a nonresident senior fellow at Carnegie Europe and editor in chief of Strategic Europe. “The problem is they tend to come to Europe, on a tourist visa, they have to keep renewing the tourist visa — they go back to Turkey or Armenia. They don’t like going back to Moscow, but they always have to keep renewing their visas.”

Visas for humanitarian reasons — like Russians seeking asylum from persecution — have always been allowed, but the EU states that opposed the tourist visa ban think the more avenues for Russians to get out and experience the world outside of a closed regime, the better. Germany and France both argued in a paper that the EU should not “underestimate the transformative power of experiencing life in democratic systems ... at first-hand, especially for future generations.”

Governments like Greece and Cyprus opposed the ban. Spain and Portugal also did, saying they wanted to punish “Putin’s war machine” and not ordinary Russians. (All also happen to be, er, nice vacation spots with strong tourism industries.) The case that Russians will vacation in Europe and all of a sudden fall in love with democracy may be a bit too idealistic — as many experts pointed out, Russians could easily vacation for many years in European capitals, and that didn’t prevent the Ukraine war. But traveling to Europe could still help counter some of the Kremlin’s anti-Western propaganda.

“The Russian government is saying in the domestic propaganda that ‘oh, the situation in Europe is terrible. We’re squeezing them, they’re totally dependent on us for energy. We’ve got the upper hand,’” said Jacob Kirkegaard, a Brussels-based senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund. “I don’t think there is any doubt if Russians traveled around Europe, especially in the holiday destination, they will see that actually Europe is not falling apart. Yes, prices are up a bit. But that piece of Russian propaganda is easily dispelled once you come here.”

Many of these EU officials and states also argued that any ban would play right into Putin’s propaganda, and he would exploit it to claim that the West is Russophobic.

Still, the EU states that supported a visa ban largely dismissed the idea that people-to-people contact would somehow change hearts and minds. And Putin isn’t all of a sudden going to say nice things about the EU if it doesn’t enact a ban. Kristi Raik, director of the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute at the International Center for Defense and Security, said course Putin would use a visa ban as propaganda, but that shouldn’t guide EU decision-making. “We have our own narrative — and we have to be better at communicating that sometimes. But the fear of how Putin presents it can’t be a reason when we have political and security interests for blocking tourism,” Raik said.

And states like Estonia and Finland and Latvia have argued that there are practical and national security reasons for such a ban. Those countries have to deal with screenings and border checks. As experts pointed out, it’s the Estonian or Finnish border officials who have to deal with added responsibilities, like making sure any Russians doing some European shopping aren’t violating sanctions by bringing back too many luxury goods.

Some experts dismissed the idea that Russian tourists are posing any real security threat, but many countries that support a ban see it in much grander terms — that this is about increasing pressure on the Putin regime in any way possible, another targeted sanction to get more and more people dissatisfied with the regime.

Those EU governments supportive of a visa ban say pretty simply: Hey, Russians shouldn’t get the chance to vacation while their government is waging war in Ukraine and creating a spiraling humanitarian and refugee crisis on the continent. Those who can travel to Europe are likely Russians of some means, and while they may not be oligarchs or within Putin’s inner circle (most of those people were already banned from travel anyway), their ability to go on summer holiday legitimizes Putin’s war.

Tourists enjoy the sea at Limanaki beach in the southern coastal resort of Ayia Napa, Cyprus, in June. A European Union ban on flights to and from Russia has meant a loss of 800,000 vacationers — a fifth of all tourists to Cyprus since record-setting 2019.
Petros Karadjias/AP

Pretty much no one believes that stopping Russians from getting tourist visas will change the course of the war in Ukraine. As Ålander pointed out, it’s far too late for that, and it’s just not how Russia works. But a ban is still a targeted sanction, one still left in the EU’s toolbox. “Sanctions are, at the moment, the best leverage that the EU has now,” Ålander said.

The EU found a middle ground on tourist visas, but this was a pretty easy test

The EU absolutely did not agree on how to approach these tourist visas, but the plan it came up with largely manages to appease all sides: it won’t cut Russians off from Europe completely, but it will make it a bit harder, and pricier, for Russians to travel there. At the same time, states in Russia’s vicinity are taking their own measures to curb Russian arrivals, which is also likely to reduce the number of Russians traveling to Europe.

Poland and the Czech Republic stopped issuing tourist visas to Russians shortly after the war began. Earlier in August, Estonia stopped issuing tourist visas to Russia. Finland is cutting the number of visas it issues to Russians by 90 percent. Other countries continue to approve visas, and because the Schengen zone doesn’t include border checks, those Russians can travel anywhere, but tighter controls from Russia’s neighbors are likely to mean fewer Russian tourists overall.

Again, as many point out, tourism isn’t the biggest issue Europe, or the West, faces on Ukraine. So much of this is a debate over symbolism, and representative of how different parts of Europe interpret their relationship with Russia now and after the war ends.

These rifts have existed throughout the war, even as, broadly, the West has rallied to support Ukraine and impose bruising sanctions on Russia, the fallout of which has also boomeranged around the world. Still, even as the West has tried to act in lockstep, there have always been some gaps. Some countries are giving way more weapons to Ukraine. Some countries are hosting more Ukrainian refugees. Some EU countries have gotten exemptions to some of the bloc’s harshest measures against Russia.

The question is how well the West’s cohesion will last under even greater pressures. Alexander Libman, a professor of Russian and East European Politics at the Free University of Berlin, said that the visa ban shouldn’t really be the focus because it was always going to have minimal policy impacts. “There is a potential for much bigger divisions, and I guess they will have to do with energy crisis,” Libman said.

Germany is facing tremendous price increases as Russia cuts off natural gas. Germany, like other parts of Europe, is embracing measures to cut back energy usage ahead of winter, but it is hard to assess how tumultuous or disruptive the crisis will be when it’s still summery and warm. Countries like Germany are emphasizing European solidarity in confronting the looming crisis, especially as Russia threatens and chokes off the continent from energy sources. But there are cracks here too; some politicians in Germany are talking about opening Nord Stream 2. Hungary, probably Putin’s biggest defender within the EU, just signed a deal with Gazprom.

The energy crisis may strain political will, and most importantly, resources. As Libman pointed out, if countries have to pour money into battling inflation and providing assistance to their own populations, it may mean less a weakening in support for Ukraine than an inability to maintain it. Putin, at least, is likely banking on these strains across Europe — which was always his goal, no matter where Russian tourists traveled.

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