National visa restrictions are being rolled out in response. But as pressure mounts for a pan-European visa ban for Russian citizens – backed by the Czech Republic, current holder of the EU’s rotating presidency – we should wonder how effective or “smart” that sanction would be.
While such a ban is a gesture of support for vulnerable states on Russia’s doorstep, it also risks bringing Putin’s friends and enemies together – both morally, as a form of collective punishment, and practically, when it’s about helping Russian dissidents find safety abroad. The Finnish Schengen route was, for example, taken by anti-war Russian nationals who ended up in France.
Some politicians say that shouldn’t be a problem: The EU is offering “humanitarian” visas to Russians fleeing persecution, meaning only holidaymakers would be targeted. But if the Schengen route has been essential, observers say, it is precisely because of the vagaries of the asylum procedure and the low number of humanitarian visas issued. Fleeing exiles will face closer doors.
None of this disruption compares to the plight of Ukrainian refugees and their relatives who bury their dead, of course. But that would be a step backwards. A 41-year-old public health specialist, Daniel Kashnitsky, who recently arrived in France from Moscow, tells me he knows how lucky he is: after spending a night in a Russian prison for protesting against the war, he successfully applied for asylum in April and fled with his family to prevent his 18-year-old son from being drafted.
Kashnitsky says he supports any initiative that could change the course of the war, but he thinks a visa ban could backfire. “It’s playing Putin’s game,” he says, fearing returning exiles or stranded EU dissidents could be used for propaganda purposes. “We are on the same side and we must unite.”
The West could indeed consider the diaspora as a resource to be cultivated. While proponents of a ban would say most Russians aren’t on the same side at all, with 77% approval of the war, think tank CEPA says grassroots support for the war likely overlaps heavily. the 76% of Russians who have never been abroad. They would not be affected and indifferent to a visa ban, unlike the highly trained professionals who advocate emigration as a way to exhaust Putin’s state. The United States aspires to attract them by removing certain visa requirements (as it did during the Cold War).
Exploiting Putin’s brain drain could uphold democratic values by granting asylum to victims of persecution and also bring the economic benefits of skilled immigration, says Konstantin Sonin, an economist at the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago. It would mark a break with the investor visas and golden passports that have benefited those closest to Putin and fueled understandable outrage.
None of this should dismiss the security concerns of Central and Eastern European states which have played a huge role in hosting millions of Ukrainian refugees and are directly exposed to threats from Moscow, such as goods transiting through Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad. Estonia has just repelled the biggest wave of cyberattacks in more than a decade.
But the visa debates are distracting from the priority of helping Ukraine by increasing financial aid to Kyiv, unlocking economic stimulus for households and speeding up vital decisions on expanding nuclear power plants in Germany and in the Dutch gas fields. Crippling inflation and energy scarcity are the real threat to the war effort; Talk of isolating Russia with a travel ban weighs on the 83.3 billion euros ($83.8 billion) the EU has sent to Russia for fossil fuels since the invasion. This, more than busloads of tourists, may be the most insufferable contradiction of all.
More from Bloomberg Opinion:
• Russian emigrants should remain silent on visa bans: Leonid Bershidsky
• Can Switzerland remain neutral towards Putin? : Andreas Kluth
• Israel cannot afford to criticize Putin too strongly: Zev Chafets
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering digital currencies, the European Union and France. Previously, he was a reporter for Reuters and Forbes.
More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion