In exclusive interviews with the New Statesman, the foreign ministers Gabrielius Landsbergis of Lithuania and Urmas Reinsalu of Estonia said that the EU should go further than a proposed freeze on new tourist visas to Russian citizens by also ensuring that all existing visas granted to Russians before the ban expire within months. Estonia and Lithuania, which both border Russia, are some of the few remaining routes into the EU for Russians after air links were severed.
“I put up a proposal that could be one of the solutions… that these visas would have a deadline. All visas which have already been issued would have their durations shortened [to within] three months or six months,” Landsbergis said.
Asked about early expiration for visas held by Russian citizens, Reinsalu said: “Excluding certain exemptions [on humanitarian grounds], our aim is to effectively block the entry of Russian Federation citizens to Europe… Any compromises which lead in this direction we will take as a positive way forward.” Estonia has already begun blocking entry to Russians holding valid EU visas issued by Tallinn, although visas issued by other countries do not apply.
The foreign ministers of the bloc, including Landsbergis and Reinsalu, are scheduled to discuss a ban on tourist visas for Russians at an EU summit that will be held in Prague on 31 August. The proposal is supported by the Baltic states, Finland, the Czech Republic and more, but opposed by others, including Greece and Germany.
Landsbergis added that he was supportive of more sanctions on individuals linked to President Vladimir Putin’s regime, such as the approximately 6,000 people appearing on a list published by Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader. But, the Lithuanian foreign minister said, reaching agreement between 27 member states over sanctions on 6,000 individuals would prove difficult.
“When we’re talking about 6,000 people, if even a single person on the list does not meet the criteria [to be sanctioned] in the eyes of one out of the 27, the whole list [could not be issued],” Landsbergis said.
Lithuania and Estonia have played a leading role in opposing Russia’s war in Ukraine and putting pressure on Moscow. In April, Lithuania became the first EU country to stop importing Russian gas, relying instead on the LNG (liquefied natural gas) terminal that it first opened eight years ago. Lithuania also blocked rail transport of sanctioned goods, including wood and concrete, to the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad for a month. Moscow was enraged; the EU ruled that the transit ban applied only to road, not rail, and it was lifted at the end of July.
Estonia has donated military equipment worth about a third of its annual military budget to Ukraine, the largest proportion of any country. It has advocated for an EU ban on imports of Russian energy, running up against opposition from bigger member states. Last week, the country was hit with its largest cyberattack for a decade and a half, for which Estonia blames Russia.
Both countries have begun dismantling Soviet-era war memorials, angering parts of their Russian-speaking minorities. The ethnic Russian populations of both countries settled during the Soviet era, sometimes resulting in tensions with the Lithuanian and Estonian majorities.
Landsbergis said that Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, which all border Russia, are bearing the burden of travel between Russia and Europe since the EU cancelled flights with its neighbour. “Since there are no air connections between Moscow and Europe, the Baltic states are basically the main road for Russian tourists to Europe. We’re seeing a lot of traffic through our borders – and that creates tensions,” Landsbergis said.
He added: “In some cases, these people are quite keen on aggressively expressing their opinions when it comes to supporting the war and other things that Russia is doing… I think it is only fair that say that those who would come to Europe for leisure will have to wait until Ukraine wins the war.”
Russians in need of humanitarian protection should continue to be offered visas, however, according to the foreign ministers. Lithuanian consulates in Russia have been offering “citizens who are under threat of prosecution or members of opposition who might be jailed for their positions, opinions or voice” visas to Europe. That will continue if tourist visas are no longer issued, Landsbergis said.
“People who are members of civic resistance movements against the Putin regime should be, and from our perspective always will be, welcome in Europe,” Reinsalu said.
[See also: What the murder of Darya Dugina means for Russia]