High on the agenda of the Prague summit of Europe’s foreign ministers this week was a proposal to ban tourist visas for Russians, as punishment for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. But it is ultimately a way to change the subject, and recalls Zelensky’s iconic remark after the war began.
It’s not a new question. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had called for a ban on tourist visa for Russian soon after the war began, and this week it became the center of the Prague summit of European Union foreign ministers.
Some European Union nations voiced their support soon after it was mentioned by Zelensky, including former Soviet republics and current Russia neighbors, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. They were followed by Finland and the Czech Republic, Denmark, and Poland. Hungary, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus. Germany and France are looking for a compromise that would allow for visas for students, workers of culture and science, as well as people who need entry for humanitarian reason. Perhaps most importantly, however, the U.S. took an unambiguous position against the restrictions.
There will clearly be no unanimous decision on tourist visas in the West, though we are sure to revisit the issue regularly as it raises so many questions, from ethics to economics. Will ordinary Russians still go on vacation to Europe? Will it get more complicated? Will they opt more and more with Egyptian and Turkish all-inclusive travel packages, while students will remain in Russian universities and the sick will remain in Russian hospitals?
But at all these questions burn, the war in Ukraine continues. And the tourist visa ban is a convenient distraction, replacing the far more relevant economic sanctions that really affect Putin and the people around him.
It is all too easy to get drawn into arguments about morality and the collective responsibility of Russians for the actions of their government. One could say that Russians have no right to vacation in Europe when we get the news this week that corpses of Ukrainians killed in the Mariupol Drama Theater are covered over in cement to hide the traces of the terrible crimes of the Russian army.
It is a hypothetical morality play that serves no purpose.
Is every Russian responsible for the deaths of Ukrainian civilians, devastated cities, shattered fates, divided families? Should we take away the right of the average family to travel? Well, if you ask the question, my answer would be: Yes, they are responsible, for allowing Putin and his oligarchs to assert power through their indifference and venality.
Rich will find a way around
But it is a hypothetical morality play that serves no purpose. Sanctions, including visa sanctions, are not punishment for the evil done. The purpose of the sanctions is to make the continuation of the war impossible. Banning of visas for Russians does little in that way, ultimately little more than populism, a way to change the topic of conversation, to offer in exchange for death what is not to be spared: travel documents for those who have no money and connections. For those who have them this ban is ridiculous. It will not affect spies, politicians, or the wealthy. They all have other passports, diplomatic visas, and other ways around the ban.
Pressure on the Russian population will have its effect, but much more from mothers grieving for sons killed.
Journalists are taught that if the news starts repeatedly discussing some absurd nonsense, we must turn 180 degrees. Or in this case, not even that far. Other sanctions are indeed important. What is going on with Russian gas and oil? What about the supply of arms from allies? Why is the frontline locked in a standoff? How far will Putin's new friendship with Iran go? Why is China suddenly quiet?
Pressure on the Russian population will have its effect, but much more from mothers grieving for sons killed, poverty, terror. And Putin himself is doing an excellent job with this. The way he's exhausting his own people is nothing compared to the condemnation of the international community. Hunger and fear are worse than not going skiing in the French alps.
No need to change the topic of conversation, no need to feed the Ukrainians’ appetite for revenge. As the Ukrainian president said at the beginning of the war: I need ammunition, not a ride.
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