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Dismayed by images of Russians relaxing on European beaches, Ukraine pushes for ban on tourist visas

Estonia, which shares a nearly 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 should be to ensure the Russian society feels the war’s impact.

“Of course, they do not bear a legal responsibility,” he said. “But Russian society bears a particular moral responsibility that their ongoing passivity legitimizes the genocide which happens in the middle 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 seeking to fly to Europe to travel over land borders to countries like Finland, then hop on a flight elsewhere.

Russians who have used Helsinki as a transit hub have shared pictures on Instagram, some joking about the sheer number 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 thinking” from hostile countries, with spokesman Dmitry Peskov saying: “The smell of such initiatives is not very good, to say the least.”

Critics of punishing Russians for their government’s actions argue imposing collective responsibility upon the public is particularly unfair in a country that lacks free and fair elections to choose its leaders.

It’s 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 steady at about 76 percent, with older Russians more likely than younger ones to support it.

“You saw at the beginning of the war this very strong view that this is Putin’s war, this is not the Russian people,” said Heather Conley, a Europe scholar and president of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a nonpartisan policy organization. “But increasingly, that separation of Russian people and the Russian government is really getting more difficult to discern.”

Aug. 19, 202201:08

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

Andrei Kolesnikov, a Moscow-based senior fellow and Russia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the lack of visible, public opposition in Russia to the war shouldn’t 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 street is an arrest,” he said. “The one who speaks out in the public space does not know how it will end.”

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

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

 “You’re giving people the choice to travel, but you are forcing them to pay for Ukrainian reconstruction,” said McFaul, now the director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University. “If they don’t want to, they can vacation in Belarus. They don’t have to vacation in Greece.”

Bianca Britton and Dylan Butts contributed.

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