Editor’s note: This article was originally published on 10 August 2022 as calls to suspend Russian tourist visas to the EU increased. On 11 August, the Estonian government announced that it would ban Russian citizens with Estonian-issued visas to the EU’s Schengen Area from entering the country. EU leaders could discuss a proposal from Estonia, Latvia and Finland to suspend the issuance of Schengen visas to Russian nationals at an upcoming meeting on 31 August.
BERLIN – All Russian citizens should be banned from entering Western countries, believes Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky. In an interview this week with the Washington Post, Zelensky said that “the most important sanctions are to close the borders — because the Russians are taking away someone else’s land”. He added that Russians should “live in their own world until they change their philosophy”.
A total ban on Russian travellers is justified because the Russian people “picked [the Vladimir Putin] government and they’re not fighting it, not arguing with it, not shouting at it,” according to Zelensky. He is wrong in his reasoning and his conclusion. As a rule, the West should keep its borders open to Russian citizens.
Let’s start with the first part of Zelensky’s reasoning, which is plainly incorrect. There have likely not been elections in Russia that would qualify as free and fair by Western standards for at least two decades. Even so, those elections have become steadily more farcical over Vladimir Putin’s 22 years in power. Independent analysts have estimated that fully half of votes cast in last year’s elections to the Duma, Russia’s parliament, were fraudulent.
Putin survives as the only unifying figure in Russian politics not because of a popular mandate but because he prevents any competitors emerging through ever-escalating repression and the imprisonment of dissidents he hasn’t yet murdered. Pretending that Putin’s near-totalitarian methods equate to the regime enjoying a popular mandate makes a mockery of every conception of democratic legitimacy.
What of the argument that Russians are not contesting the Putin regime’s policies? This, again, is not wholly credible. Hundreds of thousands have, over five months of war, defied government threats not to protest, turning out almost daily in cities across Russia – despite the extraordinarily high risks to them personally.
OVD-Info, a human rights group, counts more than 16,000 detentions of anti-war protesters since the start of the invasion in February. This comes alongside prisoner reports of torture and threats of sexual abuse at the hands of police, all for a protest they know will not shorten the war by a single second. Still, they choose to turn out.
Ilya Yashin, a politician who represents an opposition party on a Moscow council, was arrested in June on charges of “discrediting the Russian army” for his opposition to the war. He is all but certain to be convicted, but still used a recent court hearing to display a placard showing the banned slogan “No to war”. Sasha Skochilenko, a musician from St Petersburg, faces ten years in prison for replacing supermarket price tags with anti-war messages. According to Skochilenko’s girlfriend, prison authorities ripped out her tooth, leading to a bad infection that caused half her face to swell for two weeks.
Then there are the hundreds of thousands of Russians who have emigrated since the start of the war, disgusted by their government’s actions. Zelensky would condemn them to remain in Russia. When I was in Georgia last month, I met several Russians who were so horrified by the Putin regime’s actions that they felt they had no choice but to leave. Many immediately began using their freedoms outside the country to fundraise and organise for Ukrainians.
Daniil Chubar, a co-founder of Emigration for Action, an NGO helping to raise money for Ukraine, told me when I met him in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi about his plans to provide supplies to the war-torn country. Chubar said his organisation had recently completed deliveries of medicine purchased largely with donations from exiled Russians to the occupied cities of Kherson and Mariupol, in Ukraine’s south.
“It feels like being told to stay with an abusive husband,” I was told by Vilka, a 22-year-old from St Petersburg who fled Russia for Georgia days after the war broke out. “I don’t expect the Ukrainian and Estonian governments to care about me. They have their own people. I did think that human rights were for all, though.”
To be sure, many Russians support Putin and the war. Still, many do not; and some take extraordinary risks to publicly express their opposition to the regime. Millions more have successfully been cowed into silence by the brutal crackdown on dissent.
There is a Russia that is not Vladimir Putin. The West should seek to bring as many Russians on side as possible by showing them that its enemy is not the Russian people but Putin, and that Western democracy is better than the Kremlin’s dictatorship. No one can guarantee that Putinism will end with Putin. But for the sake of the neighbours Putin seeks to subjugate and the West’s own interest in an predictable global order, it should seek to build bridges with those who could in time found a different Russia – not ban them.