Europe debates: Should we ban Russians for actions of their government?

Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters
Conscripts attend a ceremony during the Russia-Ukraine conflict in the Donetsk region, Russian-controlled Ukraine, Nov. 28, 2022. European officials are debating whether to receive Russian soldiers who try to flee to Europe in order to avoid fighting.
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For decades, Europe’s policy of engagement with Russia has been built on the conviction that openness can be a catalyst for political change. The war in Ukraine has thrown that into doubt.

Now, officials are debating whether Europe should open its doors to travelers from Russia, or should Russians face some collective responsibility for President Vladimir Putin’s war.

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The EU is wrestling with a dilemma: to allow Russians continued access to Europe, letting them escape consequences of Putin’s war, or to cut them off, and risk losing them as potential allies in Russia.

In recent years, Russians have been the biggest beneficiaries of Schengen visas, which allow borderless travel through Europe. But the European Union halted direct flights from Russia after the invasion of Ukraine, though Russians can still travel to the EU through third countries.

Critics of keeping the doors open to Russians point to high approval rates within Russia for the war. That, say critics, justifies a ban.

But others say polls don’t tell the whole story. “I don’t really trust a lot of that polling,” says economics professor Michael Ben-Gad. It is more likely that they are scared to share what they really think, he argues. “If somebody in Russia calls you up and asks you for your opinion about the war, what are you going to say?”

In the early weeks of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Petr Tuma, a Czech career diplomat, supported the idea of opening the European Union to Russians morally opposed to – or even simply fearful of – becoming front-line soldiers, as “some kind of asylum and safe haven.”

But not anymore.

Nine months into the war, military-age men “have been in Russia long enough to express their disagreement with what’s going on.” Most haven’t, he says.

Why We Wrote This

A story focused on

The EU is wrestling with a dilemma: to allow Russians continued access to Europe, letting them escape consequences of Putin’s war, or to cut them off, and risk losing them as potential allies in Russia.

Neither does he think it’s fair to allow Russians generally – from middle-class Muscovites on holiday to potential soldiers – to travel to the EU. Though Mr. Tuma, whose country currently holds the rotating presidency of the EU, believes that there should be exceptions for Russians facing danger after concerted protests against their government, for other Russians, “I think they have to understand that it’s not the right time to enjoy Europe, while Russia is basically attacking us and trying to reproach our values,” he says.

The sentiments of Mr. Tuma and others like him run counter to decades of policy built on the conviction that openness and travel can be powerful catalysts for political change. But they are part of an ongoing debate within the EU about how to respond to Russians traveling to Europe, be they defectors or tourists.

The debate’s outcome will hinge in part on whether European officials feel it is correct for Russian citizens to bear some collective responsibility for President Vladimir Putin’s war – and whether such strategies are an effective way to assail an autocrat’s rule.

“We want to sanction the oligarchs, we want to sanction those that support the war effort,” French Foreign Affairs Minister Catherine Colonna said at the September United Nations General Assembly meetings in New York, echoing the views of many Western European diplomats. Although sanctions are, as some point out, also a form of collective punishment, it is “necessary,” she added, “to allow contacts with Russian citizens.”

“We’re telling them to go back and fight?”

In recent years, Russians have been the biggest beneficiaries of EU Schengen visas, which allow borderless travel through most of continental Europe, receiving one quarter of them in 2021. Greece, Spain, and Italy have long been Russians’ top three destinations, according to European Parliament data.

Sergey Pivovarov/Reuters
A priest sprinkles holy water on Russian reservists recruited during the partial mobilization of troops before their departure to the zone of Russia-Ukraine conflict, in the Rostov region, Russia, Oct. 31, 2022. Hundreds of thousands of Russian men fled their homeland during the mobilization effort in order to avoid being drafted.

The EU halted direct flights from Russia after its February invasion of Ukraine, though Russians can still travel to the EU through third countries. This summer, the EU suspended a 2007 visa facilitation agreement with Moscow, making it more time consuming and expensive, but not terribly onerous, for Russians to visit Europe. 

A number of member nations argue that the EU should go further by banning most Russian travel to the EU altogether. As ambassadors debate a common position in Brussels, many of the EU’s 27 member nations have begun crafting their own policies.

In late September, the Baltic states and Poland closed their doors to Russian tourists, including those traveling onward to other EU countries, citing safety concerns. “There are persons coming with the aim of undermining the security of our countries, insofar as three-fourths of Russian citizens support Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine,” argued a joint statement written by these governments.

The question of offering sanctuary to Russian soldiers is also controversial. Analysts have argued that doing so is a key way to deliver a blow to the Kremlin by potentially siphoning off its fighting force. “I call on EU states to do like Germany,” European Council President Charles Michel said, “and welcome Russian deserters.”

But some remain opposed. “A refusal to fulfill one’s civic duty in Russia, or a desire to do so, does not constitute sufficient grounds for being granted asylum in another country,” Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu told Reuters.

Still, tacitly encouraging Russians to do their military “duty” is an odd tack for Europeans to take, even granting that the decisions of those fleeing men – who number in the hundreds of thousands by some estimates – may be based more on personal welfare than political conviction, says Michael Ben-Gad, professor in the School of Policy and Global Affairs at the City, University of London. 

“There’s this idea that they’re just trying to ‘save their own skins,’ which may very well be true for a lot of them,” he says. “But I’d say on the whole, you want to encourage that behavior. Russian soldiers who are effectively ready to surrender, we’re telling them to go back and fight?”

What’s more, the morale of Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine is “more likely to be affected if they know that other people are getting out of service – that people who should be fighting have slipped across the border and are being welcomed and settled.” That is powerful psychological warfare, Dr. Ben-Gad says.

And as far as the subject of Russians’ apparent widespread support for President Vladimir Putin’s war goes, there’s reason for skepticism, he says. “I don’t really trust a lot of that polling – and this idea that Russians are easily brainwashed.” It is more likely that they are scared to share what they really think, he says. “If somebody in Russia calls you up and asks you for your opinion about the war, what are you going to say?”

Protecting Europe

Still, Baltic states have good reason to be wary of augmenting the Russian minorities in their countries, Dr. Ben-Gad says, since Russia has long used any sizable Russian-speaking population as an excuse for power flexes including invasion. “The idea that they’d be permanently settled in the Baltic states is a bad idea.” 

Security is a particular concern when it comes to fleeing soldiers, notes Mr. Tuma, the Czech diplomat who is also a visiting fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center. Since Europe has kicked out many Russian officials, most of Moscow’s “embassies in European capitols are depleted.” As a result, the Kremlin’s “secret services are looking for other ways to operate, and [military-age Russian men], if allowed into other EU countries, would be great assets for them,” he says. 

Jaap Arriens/Sipa/AP
A man holds a sign reading 'Honor and glory to deserters' in front of the Russian Embassy in Warsaw, Poland, on Oct. 28, 2022. While most Russians seeking to escape the mobilization effort fled to former Soviet republics such as Georgia and Kazakhstan where visas are not required, others attempted to make their way to Europe.

Though it’s true that siphoning off potential Russian fighters to weaken its military “would make some difference for sure, if you compare the pros against the security risk we’d be facing,” the risk is not worth the reward, Mr. Tuma says. Their presence would also cause tension among Ukrainian refugees, he adds. 

Putting aside the question of resettlement, French and German diplomats have advocated welcoming any Russians not on a sanctions list who’d like to come to Europe. Restrictions on travel, say the diplomats, unnecessarily isolate ordinary Russians and help fuel Mr. Putin’s anti-Western narratives.

But such concerns matter less than showing solidarity with Ukraine’s plight, says Benjamin Tallis, research fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations. What’s more, he adds, is the idea that it’s possible to create political change in Russia through travel that includes shopping sprees, lovely beaches, and even enlightening conversation with Europeans now bears reexamination. 

“Germany is a prime example of thinking that economic ties with Russia would be enough – that they would end up delivering liberal politics,” but this hasn’t proven to be the case, he says. And allowing Russians to continue to travel to the EU while their government wages a brutal war could have a “corrosive effect on our own democratic systems.”

“Whenever people see Russians flaunting their wealth without having a democratic system to generate it, this raises the question: Is this an alternative model?” says Dr. Tallis. “We don’t have to shoot ourselves in the foot by making autocracies seem more appealing than they are.”

At the same time, the EU should be trying to “change the cost-benefit calculation for certain Russians who have given tacit consent to the Putin regime – who have absented themselves from the political process – in order to enjoy the material benefits they provide,” he argues.

“There are things we have that make Europe special in many ways – and that we should protect as a benefit to be enjoyed by those” whose leader is not waging a war on Western values, he says. “You can’t visit Europe.”

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