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The EU’s Russia Visa Ban Debate: Legitimate Sanction or Collective Punishment Mechanism?

Author: Eleni Anagnostopoulou

Editors: Siddharth G. Khare and Soline Germond

In light of Russia's direct use of military force against Ukraine, a country bordering the EU, the European Commission officially proposed the suspension of the 2007 EU-Russia Visa Facilitation Agreement on September 6. The European Council approved this policy a few days later. Subsequently, the application fees, required documents and processing times for issuing short-stay visas to Russian citizens have increased. The consensus among European foreign ministers, the backdrop behind the suspension of the 2007 Agreement, is that relatively unrestricted tourism in Europe is no longer a legitimate right for Russians. Should the EU do more to counter Russian tourism? Or do Russians deserve to endure such measures?

Sanctions had already been issued following Russia’s destabilising actions in Ukraine, including the illegal annexation of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol in 2014 and recognition of the independence of the Donetsk and Luhansk separatist oblasts on 21 February 2022. After Russia militarily invaded Ukraine on 24 February, escalating the longstanding conflict into an interstate war, the EU partially suspended the Visa Facilitation Agreement the next day. Other recent Western-imposed sanctions include financial measures, hindering oil and gas imports, and targeting members of Russia’s parliament and individuals and businesses, namely “oligarchs”, with alleged ties to the Kremlin. These measures have crippled Russia’s economy as well as harmed ordinary citizens. By comprising a complementary sanction, the suspension of the 2007 Visa Facilitation Agreement is consistent with the EU’s broader approach to sanctions making it more complex and more expensive, yet not impossible, for Russians to enter the EU.

The legal basis for the suspension of the Visa Facilitation Agreement is Article 77(2)(a) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union and Article 15(5) of the Agreement, stipulating that “each party may suspend this Agreement for reasons of public order, protection of national security or protection of public health…”. Central and Eastern European countries shifted the debate’s outcome in favour of the suspension. Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland agreed to stop issuing short-stay Schengen visas to Russians. Other European countries have also supported the EU-wide tourist visa ban. It seems then as though a visa ban is under consideration within the EU, but Western European countries, including France and Germany, have warned against banning tourist visas for Russians.

The case for a potential visa ban appears, upon surface-level reflection, to be a strong one. German philosopher Karl Jaspers distinguished between the Germans who actively participated in the execution of war crimes during World War II and those who tolerated them. Jaspers concluded that the bystanders were morally guilty. In line with this perspective, Russians, though not directly responsible for the hostilities committed by their country’s armed forces in Ukraine, are politically accountable and accordingly should be made aware of their government’s actions. A senior EU official involved in the visa suspension/ban talks said “we have to send a signal to the Russian population that this war is not OK, it is not acceptable”. Another argument is that Russian tourists visiting Europe enjoy access to goods and services that European sanctions deny them in their country. Hence, Russian tourism could be a sanctions loophole that a visa ban would close. A visa ban as a financial solution would make it harder for Russians to invest or spend money in Europe.

Sanctions are defined as "economic or financial prohibitions taken by one or more countries - the senders - to punish another country or countries - the target - to force change in the target's policies, or demonstrate to a domestic or international audience the sender's position on the target's policies". The goals of sanctions range from punishment, deterrence, coercion, and signalling resolve to symbolism and displaying opposition to policies that violate international norms. However, the literature suggests that economic sanctions are unsuccessful in altering the target State’s military behaviour, especially in disputes concerning territorial incompatibilities.

So, are sanctions devised by the EU, whose direct target is ordinary Russians and indirect target the Russian leadership likely to address the war in Ukraine? Could popular pressure, inspired by the EU signalling the consequences of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, induce the Kremlin to change its policies towards Ukraine and even concede to withdraw its forces?

Supposedly, Russians support the war in Ukraine. Putin’s approval ratings have risen since the invasion based on polls conducted by the Levada Center. But are these data truly reflective of Russian public opinion? Does Putin’s high support level correlate with support for Russian military activities in Ukraine? These results need to be interpreted with caution. On the contrary, the 2021 Russian Election Studies survey findings were as follows: just 8% of Russians thought that Russia should send military forces to fight against Ukrainian government troops there, and just 9% thought that Russia should train or equip separatist forces. Sending arms or deploying Russian troops into Ukraine was unpopular, and it probably still is. In addition, the same survey found that about 6% of Russians nationwide claimed Russia should approach the West as an enemy. Instead of acknowledging that almost all Russians see the West on friendly terms, EU countries seek to ban Russian tourism to Europe. Such a measure could alienate the Russian people and reinforce Moscow’s strategic anti-Western rhetoric aimed at legitimating the country’s assertive foreign policy.

The Russian State, governed by an authoritarian electoral regime where multiparty elections are not fair but instruments of authoritarian rule, represses political opposition. Russians did protest against their government to denounce the war in Ukraine, but the only consequence was that thousands were arrested in cities across Russia. There have been reports surrounding torture and ill-treatment of antiwar protesters. Therefore, Russians do not live in a political opportunity structure wherein they can challenge their regime because citizen mobilisation is restricted by government institutions. Generally, a high retributive threat for collective action against political authorities coerces citizen compliance. Larger and more unacceptable actions, like the antiwar demonstrations in Russia, tend to get more repressed (see From Mobilisation to Revolution, 1978). Also, when a government threatens retribution in response to opposition, political loyalties can shift in favour of the regime to avoid punishment. Domestic audiences become afraid to voice opposition when faced with retaliation directed by the incumbent. This oppressive situation is, unfortunately, apparent in Russia.

The Political Terror Scale dataset reveals that civil and political rights violations in Russia expanded to large numbers of the population in 2021. In other words, popular pressure cannot influence the Kremlin to change its stance towards Ukraine because such a domestic accountability mechanism does not really exist in the first place. Those who criticise the small scale of antiwar protests or assume that Russians are inherently apolitical must take note of human rights violations in Russia, including the restriction of the rights to freedom of assembly and expression, and the high risks imposed on even peaceful resistance.

In reference to the work of Dr Avia Pasternak (Professor of Political Theory at UCL), being a citizen essentially means participating in the collective maintenance of institutional practices. This renders citizens responsible for State injustice even if they disagree with it. But there exists a context-specific nexus between the extent of civic participation in statecraft and civic responsibility. Further research should explore this relationship considering variables like regime type, the extent of citizen participation, the level of State repression, and access to information about State policies. To return to the matter at hand, Russians experience propaganda and the threat of persecution, which are factors that undermine intentional citizenship. Active participation in State policies is lower compared to the level of participation of citizens in more democratic States. Owing to the problematic relationship between the citizens of Russia and their government, Russians do not deserve to incur the costs of any type of extensive sanctions for their State’s wrongdoings.

Open Russian tourism in Europe, given the current circumstances, is indeed ethically questionable. Still, a visa ban is disproportionate and rather punitive. Western sanctions in response to this security crisis should be selective towards the Russian leadership without indiscriminately targeting the Russian population in whose interest the war is not fought and the transnational effects resulting from the war are not due. It is more productive for the EU to keep bolstering Ukraine via militaristic, economic, and diplomatic means. Symbolic measures, on the other hand, will not deter the Kremlin from pursuing its goal of “reunifying” Ukraine’s Donbas region with Russia.

Ultimately, ordinary Russians, like all ordinary people, want to be able to go about daily life in peace. And they most likely wish that for Ukrainians, too. Our shared humanity prevails above all political and cultural differences.

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