Visa Sanctions — A Sign of Strength? No


Visa sanctions against Russia have become a hot news topic and subject of discussion within the EU. A group of countries has taken shape, which, one way or another, shares Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky’s idea of completely closing off Russian access of to the EU. Among them are countries which used to be part of the Warsaw Pact (Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia), former Soviet republics (Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia), the Nordic countries—Finland, Denmark and Sweden, as well as Belgium. In their paradigm, the responsibility for the conflict in Ukraine should be spread to include all of Russian society.

The rest of the countries have so far either not spoken out or have questioned the idea of a total ban. Nevertheless, in one way or another, they are in favour of expanding certain categories of restrictions on Russian citizens. From their point of view, political leaders and big business should be held responsible, while the rest of society should not be isolated from the EU. There are also intermediate points of view. So, for example, the head of the Dutch Foreign Ministry believes that tourists need to close their permission to enter the EU, since most of them are rich Russians who have “connections with the regime.” Apparently, a decision on a complete ban will not be made. It will be difficult to get consensus in the EU Council. However, in practice, we are very likely to see entry bans into the Union through some of the countries mentioned above and a reduction in the number of visas issued from the rest. Let’s try to figure out what the EU and Russia will gain and lose from such a development.

For the European Union, the benefits of visa restrictions are mainly symbolic. Visa sanctions are another measure that can be written down as an asset in containing Russia. They can be regarded as a signal that there will be no return to the conditionally pre-February model of relations. The preservation of interpersonal contacts as they existed before does not correspond to current political realities, which means that they can and should be brought to a common and, at the same time, the smallest denominator. Obviously, calls for a total visa ban for Russians are a form of populism. They come mainly from countries that used to be in the anti-Russian vanguard. However, less radical steps in the form of reducing the number of visas and increasing the processing time for applications may well be sold on the political market as another blow to Russia, as well as be a way of gaining moral self-satisfaction in the fight against it. They can also be considered yet another signal to the Russian leadership and society.

Another symbolic plus in the eyes of the EU authorities could be the transformation of a trip to the EU for Russians from an ordinary routine into a hard-to-reach privilege that must be earned. It is possible that the visa policy will become a tool for selecting between “good” Russians and “bad” ones. Among the first are conditional human rights activists, loyal journalists and public figures, who in the EU are still considered not hopeless in terms of their political position. The German Foreign Minister, in particular, notes that a complete ban on entry will affect Russians “critical of the regime.” Such people “should not be punished”. They can be supplemented by scientists and those with certain competencies; their departure from Russia would be part of the “brain drain” process and can be relied upon as a tool to “weaken the regime.” For some countries, “ordinary” citizens arriving as tourists will also be among the “good” Russians. The “bad” ones include state officials and people representing state-owned companies and large private businesses, that is, all those who, by virtue of their activities, directly or indirectly, in the perception of the EU, support the conflict in Ukraine or are associated with organs of the Russian state. Naturally, you will have to prove that you are among the “good” and “deserving” in one way or another, or at least exert more effort to gain access to the EU. Among such possible evidence, it is proposed that hopefuls sign a written condemnation of the policy of the Russian authorities in Ukraine.

Such visa policy changes will be helped by informal restrictions on cooperation. They cannot be absolute. However, they are still very widespread. These include the withdrawal of a large number of companies from Russia, the curtailment of joint commercial, scientific, cultural, media and other projects. The flow of Russians to Europe has already been affected by transport restrictions, which have significantly complicated travel to the EU countries from Russia. A ban on entry to Finland or Estonia will exacerbate the problem, since these countries were the “entry point” for further flights or transfers to other countries of the Union.

The list of cons seems to be a little more extensive, but at the same time quite tolerable for the EU, given the political situation. Transit countries (Finland and Estonia) will suffer some material damage. However, the Russians will no longer be spending money there. Similar damage will be done in all those countries that reduce their issuance of visas. But the losses are unlikely to change course for the cancellation because the tourist flow has already been significantly curtailed due to transport restrictions and the complexity of financial transactions.

Another minus is the reduction of the “soft power” of the EU, that is, the Europeans’ ability to broadcast to visiting Russians their values and way of life. However, in the Union itself, apparently, they have long been disillusioned with the influence they have on the Russians. In the majority of their political positions, the Russians do not change; they do not take to the streets and do not overthrow the government. Those who wanted to leave have already left. Most Russians haven’t travelled to Europe, or abroad at all. To view a liberal visa regime as a means of influencing Russian society as a whole is a big illusion, and the EU is well-aware of this. For those who still show the desire and determination to travel to the EU countries, the opportunities mentioned above will remain. The door will close, but the window will remain open for a time being.

The third disadvantage is the growing number of Russians’ humanitarian ties with countries that in the future may become political opponents of the EU or not share European values. We are talking, for example, about China or Turkey. But the EU’s current relations with such countries are characterised by tolerance; the aggravation is not predetermined, their influence on Russia is limited. Even if we assume that it will grow, the threat will clearly not be the highest priority for the EU.

There is one more minus. Visa sanctions are unlikely to compel Russia to pursue a political course towards EU requirements. At the very least, much tougher economic sanctions have been detrimental to trade ties but have had zero political effect. The next restrictions will replenish the treasury of ineffective sanctions. The thesis which is widespread in the intellectual discourse of the EU, that the dissatisfaction of Russians with the reduction in trips to the Union is transforming into dissatisfaction with the authorities, seems naive.

The advantages for Russia are as limited in number as they are for the EU. The conservatives among the political elite and society may welcome the curtailment of ties and the reduction of access to “alien values”. In fact, Russian society is largely Western in terms of lifestyle, culture, consumer behaviour, demographic structure, and so on. Breaking away from Europe in itself is unlikely to reduce divorce rates, increase the number of children in families, steer society away from capitalism and the market, or lead to an embrace of the more traditional values of societies in the East, many of which are themselves Westernised to varying degrees. Russians will continue to read European literature, listen to Western music, watch foreign movies, follow the news and keep in touch with friends and colleagues abroad.

Fortunately, the pandemic has brought communication opportunities to a qualitatively new level. However, Russia’s closeness to Western culture hardly means that the majority of Russians are ready to accept Western political demands, refuse to support the political course of the country and the authorities as a whole, and also to abandon the search for their own development models. The EU’s visa manipulations are sure to irritate, rather than support the majority. They will be seen as yet another step towards the “cancellation of Russia”, and the rhetoric of EU officials will be seen even more as demagogy, indicating weakness rather than strength. A similar attitude should be expected towards the radical calls by the most Russophobic Europeans to completely cut ties with Russia. Such appeals can be perceived as a sign of the parochial, peripheral nature of some (fortunately, not all) “Europeans”, whose personality complexes and level of ignorance deserves not so much criticism and indignation as indulgence and regret. It is unlikely that Russians will be pleased with the proposal that they provide a written assurance that they condemn the actions of the Russian authorities in Ukraine. Even among those who do not support them, the procedure is likely to be seen as humiliating and disgusting.

Among the minuses for Russia is the erosion of accumulated humanitarian ties, the narrowing of opportunities to receive education in the EU, or to carry out business trips and scientific exchanges. But all these connections are already shrinking. Here, the cons for Russia mirror the cons for the EU. The pain threshold of the collapse of ties has already been passed, and new visa barriers will only complete the picture. Honestly speaking, Russians still have ample opportunity to travel abroad outside the EU. EU isolation measures do not close opportunities in other areas and even stimulate their expansion.

The bottom line is, there are no fundamental reasons in the EU to refuse to build up visa barriers. Moreover, their price has noticeably less than a symbolic effect for themselves and their internal audiences. Russia also has no reason to perceive visa restrictions as a serious threat, and certainly doesn’t see them as a reason to make concessions to Brussels.

Moreover, Russia could renounce the principle of reciprocity in this matter and not toughen the receipt of visas on its part. Openness for EU citizens to come to Russia for study, business or tourism purposes, despite the decline of political relations, will be a sign of maturity and strength. We should maintain human and humanitarian ties with both “old” and “new” Europe, despite the populism of foreign political elites. The louder the anti-Russian voices sound, the greater the need to welcome ordinary EU citizens in Russia. Few things work against the propaganda and “strategic communications” of individual countries as effectively as personal experience with a country in relation to which campaigns such as the current Russophobic work is being carried out.

From our partner RIAC

Ivan Timofeev
Ivan Timofeev
RIAC Director of Programs, RIAC Member, Head of "Contemporary State" program at Valdai Discussion Club, RIAC member.


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