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Collective punishment or effective sanction? Europe weighs banning Russian tourists

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KYIV, Ukraine — Outraged and anguished after six months of war in Ukraine, Europe is wrestling over a matter with deep diplomatic and moral implications: whether to ban Russian travelers.

Kyiv’s allies have been aghast on the split-screen juxtaposition of Russian tourists sunning themselves on Mediterranean beaches while many Ukrainians spend a few of their summer in bomb shelters, dodging missiles and artillery.

Fueled by a plea from Ukraine’s government earlier this month, the controversy over visa bans is raging from Brussels to Washington, underscoring longstanding fractures inside the West over how aggressively to confront Russia within the war’s next phase.

At the guts of the moral query hanging over European capitals is the Russian public’s culpability: Whether strange residents, by putting up little visible opposition, are enabling President Vladimir Putin’s war.

Europe’s struggle to reply that query is pitting competing values against one another: pluralism and fairness versus national sovereignty; accountability for a rustic’s actions versus the moral hazards of “collective punishment.”  

“We usually are not speaking about punishment, we’re speaking about restrictive measures that are aiming to finish the war,” Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu told NBC News via Zoom this week. “The appropriate to enter any particular country just isn’t a human right.”

The choice could have significant economic ramifications for the continent. Russian travelers spent $22.5 billion last 12 months in foreign countries, in line with the analytics firm GlobalData, and there have been some 13.7 million international departures from Russia. Amongst the preferred destinations for Russians, the group says: Italy and Cyprus.

Kyiv wants that to alter and has called for countries within the European Union and the Group of Seven — a club that features america — to ban Russian travelers.

The difficulty may come to a head next week at an E.U. foreign ministers meeting in Prague, but not all Western nations are on the identical page.

Germany is against a visa ban affecting “strange Russians,” Chancellor Olaf Scholz said recently, adding: “That is Putin’s war.” The E.U.’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, told a conference in Spain on Monday that it was “not a great idea” and that “now we have to be more selective.” 

This week, the U.S. also got here out against a visa ban.

“The U.S. would not need to close off pathways to refuge and safety for Russia’s dissidents or others who’re vulnerable to human rights abuses,” a State Department spokesman said. “It will be significant to attract a line between the actions of the Russian government and its policies in Ukraine, and the people of Russia.”

Yet, many countries on Moscow’s doorstep have led the charge to stop letting in Russians, in some cases citing security concerns given the continued war. Finland plans to slash the variety of visas issued to Russians by 90 percent. And Poland has said it supports the E.U. denying Russians the Schengen visas, which permit passport-free travel inside 26 European countries.

Estonia, which shares an almost 200-mile border with Russia, has been pleading with other E.U. nations to follow its lead by halting issuance of tourist visas for Russians and invalidating existing ones, a move that took effect last week. Reinslau said the goal of visa restrictions and other sanctions needs to be to make sure the Russian society feels the war’s impact.

“After all, they don’t bear a obligation,” he said. “But Russian society bears a specific moral responsibility that their ongoing passivity legitimizes the genocide which happens in the midst of Europe.”

Countries bordering Russia are feeling the visa ban debate particularly acutely. Shortly after the invasion, the E.U. banned flights from Russia, forcing Russians looking for to fly to Europe to travel over land borders to countries like Finland, then hop on a flight elsewhere.

Russians who’ve used Helsinki as a transit hub have shared pictures on Instagram, some joking concerning the sheer variety of fellow Russians waiting for flights from the Finnish capital, with others assuring their followers that they hadn’t experienced “Russophobia” on their journeys.

The Kremlin has called any suggestion of Russian visa bans “irrational pondering” from hostile countries, with spokesman Dmitry Peskov saying: “The smell of such initiatives just isn’t superb, to say the least.”

Critics of punishing Russians for his or her government’s actions argue imposing collective responsibility upon the general public is especially unfair in a rustic that lacks free and fair elections to decide on its leaders.

It is also notoriously difficult to accurately gauge public opinion in Russia, which lacks free speech protections and has made it illegal to discredit the Russian military’s version of events. 

Recent polling from the Levada Center, a nongovernmental research group based in Moscow, found that domestic support for what Putin describes only as a “special military operation” has stayed regular at about 76 percent, with older Russians more likely than younger ones to support it.

“You saw initially of the war this very strong view that that is Putin’s war, this just isn’t the Russian people,” said Heather Conley, a Europe scholar and president of the German Marshall Fund of america, a nonpartisan policy organization. “But increasingly, that separation of Russian people and the Russian government is basically getting tougher to discern.”

In the primary days of the invasion, there have been anti-war protests in dozens of Russian cities that saw hundreds arrested, but those demonstrations have mostly faded away.

Andrei Kolesnikov, a Moscow-based senior fellow and Russia expert on the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the dearth of visible, public opposition in Russia to the war should not be construed as universal support.

“The political opposition has either left under threat of criminal prosecution or is already in jail. Going out on the road is an arrest,” he said. “The one who speaks out in the general public space doesn’t know the way it’ll end.”

Some nations have advocated a middle-ground position that will impose limited visa restrictions while carving out exemptions for political dissidents and for humanitarian reasons, resembling family funerals. 

Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul proposed requiring all Russians looking for a visa to pay a small, extra fee that will help fund reconstruction in Ukraine of the damage inflicted by Russia’s military.

 “You are giving people the selection to travel, but you might be forcing them to pay for Ukrainian reconstruction,” said McFaul, now the director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University. “In the event that they don’t need to, they’ll vacation in Belarus. They haven’t got to vacation in Greece.”

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