Row over Russian tourists entering EU is a sign of things to come

Dispute over visas foreshadows wider EU fissures that threaten European unity on Ukraine this autumn

Millions of Ukrainians have settled in towns and cities across Europe since Vladimir Putin’s invasion of their country began. This summer many Russians followed — not as refugees but as tourists, filling the bars and beaches of southern Europe as if it were just another holiday season. That galling juxtaposition — Russians enjoying the sun on the Riviera while Ukrainians take shelter from missiles at home — has forced on to the agenda a question that strains Europe’s unity on the Ukraine war and goes to the heart of the wider sanctions debate: should Russian citizens be blocked from entering the European Union as punishment for their leader’s crimes?

Estonia’s prime minister, Kaja Kallas, last week called for a Europe-wide ban on Russian tourists. Visiting Europe, she tweeted, was “a privilege, not a human right”. Her country has already cancelled the issuing of visas to Russian tourists. Poland, Latvia and Lithuania have tightened visa rules since the war began in February, though they cannot block Russians from entering on Schengen area visas issued by other EU states. Eastern countries are seeing an influx of Russians, who are entering by land before flying on to other destinations because the EU closed its airspace to Russian aircraft. Viral videos showing Russian tourists taunting Ukrainians at European holiday resorts have added to feelings of outrage.

In Finland, which shares an 830-mile border with Russia, crossings by road spiked after the lifting of Covid-19 travel restrictions in Russia in July. That was a boon for local businesses but an embarrassment to the government of prime minister Sanna Marin, which announced a plan to limit tourist visas but doubts its legal right to impose an outright ban. Helsinki has called for an EU-level decision, and the issue is due to be discussed by European leaders at a summit in the Czech Republic at the end of the month.

The case for a ban has received strong support from Ukraine, whose president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said it was the “most important sanction” and would force Russians to “live in their own world until they change their philosophy”. But Germany and the European Commission are not so sure, arguing that a ban would divide families while penalising opponents of the war and those fleeing persecution by the Putin regime. Hungary, which maintains close ties to Russia, is almost certain to oppose the idea.


The row brings to the surface long-standing differences over the extent to which sanctions over the Ukraine war should affect ordinary Russians. Zelenskiy justifies a ban on the basis that the Russian people “picked [Putin’s] government and they’re not fighting it, not arguing with it, not shouting at it”. Zelenskiy, Kallas and others argue that hitting the Russian middle class directly in this way would stoke domestic pressure on Putin. They point to the Kremlin’s furious reaction to the calls for a ban as evidence that the leadership in Moscow shares that analysis.

Germany argues that a travel ban, directly hitting those western-oriented Russians who are the best hope for change in the country, would merely strengthen Putin’s position while entrenching his narrative that Europe despises Russia and its people

That is to underestimate the strength of Putin’s position, and the weakness of his critics, opponents of a travel ban retort. Russian voters have not democratically endorsed Putin in any meaningful sense — elections over the past two decades have been neither free nor fair — and their ability to challenge him is virtually non-existent given how the regime has all but shut down independent media and brutally clamps down on public dissent. It takes remarkable bravery to protest against the Ukraine war within Russia, and still hundreds of thousands of people have defied the government and taken to the streets, seeking to show the world that there is a Russia beyond Putin. Europe must show solidarity with that Russia, Germany argues, whereas a travel ban, directly hitting those western-oriented Russians who are the best hope for change in the country, would merely strengthen Putin’s position while entrenching his narrative that Europe despises Russia and its people.

The visa dispute foreshadows wider fissures that threaten European unity on Ukraine this autumn. While EU resolve in the early stages of the war confounded the Kremlin’s expectations, the prospect of a protracted stalemate on the battlefield will put new strain on European cohesion, especially as media attention wanes and the cold weather causes the energy crisis to hit households anew. Moscow is counting on this. In his response to Zelenskiy’s call for a tourist visa ban, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: “Sooner or later, these countries will wonder if Zelenskiy is doing everything right, considering that their citizens have to pay for his whims.”

In the background loom bigger differences between member states on how to meet the cost of sanctions and stronger defence, and over military aid for Ukraine. Perhaps the most important fault line is over how the war should end and what constitutes victory. In one camp will be those, generally at the farthest geographic remove from Ukraine, who believe the end of fighting must be the priority. In the other, those who argue the overriding goal is to punish or even humiliate Putin while guaranteeing the territorial integrity of Ukraine. The basic question will be this: does the West do everything to ensure Ukrainian victory, or does it ultimately choose to define winning as not losing?