Europe’s Disastrous Ban on Russians

 Russian cars trying to cross the Finnish border, Vaalimaa, Finland, September. 2022 Janis Laizans / Reuters
Russian cars trying to cross the Finnish border, Vaalimaa, Finland, September. 2022 Janis Laizans / Reuters

Within hours of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement that he was ordering a “partial mobilization” for the war in Ukraine, tens of thousands of Russian men began fleeing the country. Many have gone to former Soviet republics or to Turkey, which is still accepting Russians who have the means to get there.  According to Novaya Gazeta Europe, by the end of the third day, a source in Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB, said that 261,000 men had left, a number that if accurate would be nearly as many as the 300,000 new troops the mobilization was supposed to deliver.  Yet very few Russians have made it to the countries that, in theory, should be most eager and best equipped to accept opponents of Putin: the countries of the European Union. EU states have almost completely shut down entry points from Russia by land and air, and for most Russians, it is nearly impossible to get visas. Even Finland, which initially accepted thousands of Russian arrivals, has announced it will close its borders.

These travel restrictions fly directly in the face of Western interests, both in the war in Ukraine and in support for anti-Putin movements in Russia. For instance, since the invasion began, Latvia has hosted a crucial community of exiled Russian journalists who have helped challenge Putin’s narrative about the war. Yet the government has taken an increasingly hard line on any new Russian entries. As in several other EU countries, these policies are the outcome of a larger campaign to punish ordinary Russians for the war. Initially, that campaign focused primarily on economic sanctions, but during the summer, a growing number of European governments began to crack down on foreign travel by Russians, as well. Paradoxically, some visa bans came into force in September, just days before Putin announced the draft.

As a result, Europe may be squandering an opportunity to assist those Russians who might be its greatest strategic asset. In doing so, it would also be overlooking a long and successful history of Western support for Russian exiles. Now, as the war in Ukraine enters a new and more dangerous phase, it is crucial to understand the actual effects of these bans, and how they could backfire in the long run. For Russians, the situation is also increasingly urgent: the Kremlin seems likely to close its borders soon to anyone eligible for the draft, so the window of time to get out of the country may be rapidly closing. Ukraine, which has actively supported the European bans, should reconsider its opposition to letting Russia in, which has played a strong part in European leaders’ decision-making. Indeed, some European leaders have said they will not even consider Russian asylum seekers, seemingly contravening some of the basic tenets of European human rights doctrine.

No Entry, No Escape

Initially, Europe did not take a hard line toward Russian exiles. The first wave of Russians who left were predominantly members of the intelligentsia and IT workers, and during the first months of the war, many countries were more welcoming. Many Russian activists and journalists fled to Georgia and Armenia, because Russians didn’t need visas to enter those countries. Others went to the Baltic countries or other parts of eastern Europe. Lithuania, for example, was already known as a place for political exiles from Putin’s Russia. Latvia, in turn, soon became a headquarters for many Russian journalists who had been shut down in Russia.

At first, Putin encouraged the exodus. “The Russian people will always be able to distinguish true patriots from scum and traitors and simply spit them out like a fly that accidentally flew into their mouth”, he remarked in mid-March. By May, however, the Russian security services had begun to visit families of emigres to pressure them to convince their relatives to return to Russia. And around that time, some European governments also began to change their attitude toward Russians who were seeking refuge in their countries. Some argued that it was time to make life more difficult for them, because Russians were not feeling the effects of war.

By summer, many European countries were rethinking their policies toward Russian exiles. As the war went on, and the West continued to ratchet up pressure on Putin, it became more difficult for Russian activists who had gone back home to reenter countries where they had settled. To take one example, at the beginning of September, Russian journalist and philanthropist Mitya Aleshkovsky, who had been designated as a foreign agent by the Kremlin for his humanitarian activities, was denied entry into Georgia, where he lived with his wife and young daughter. No explanation was provided by the Georgian authorities.

Even more striking has been the change in Latvia. During the first months of the war, Riga had become home to hundreds of independent Russian journalists who were fleeing persecution and media bans in Russia and who have been providing crucial independent Russian-language reporting on the war from their new Latvian base. By summer, however, the Latvian government began to raise concerns about this community, with the Latvian State Security Service (VDD) stating in July that hosting Russian media carries a security risk to “the Latvian information space”. One result was that a conference of Russian investigative journalists planned in Riga in September was quietly canceled.

By August, it had become much harder for Russians to enter the Baltic countries, including people who are clearly part of the Russian political opposition. Consider the case of Yaroslav Varenik, a liberal journalist from Arkhangelsk and an activist in the organization of jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. He has been persecuted by Russian authorities for two years, having had his apartment searched and his bank account frozen. In mid-August, he tried to flee to Estonia. He applied for and was granted a Schengen visa by Estonia. When he reached the border, he was interrogated intensively by Russian border guards for more than seven hours, but they finally let him go. He was not as lucky on the Estonian side. He was refused entry because he was unable to provide a valid hotel reservation; he had made one but it had been canceled because he had used his Russian credit card for the booking. Varenik never made it to Europe and is unlikely to in the future: according to him, the Estonians have canceled his Schengen visa. His security in Russia is in doubt.

“The Whole of Russian Society”

There are various reasons for Europe’s hardening stance toward Russian exiles, but one of the crucial drivers has been direct lobbying by the Ukrainian government. On August 8, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called on Western governments to impose visa bans on all Russian citizens. His argument was straightforward: let the Russians “live in their own world until they change their philosophy”. In Zelensky’s view, it didn’t matter whether the Russians in question are for or against the Putin regime—keeping them in Russia would, he argued, force Moscow to change its policies. “This is the only way to influence Putin”, he told The Washington Post. He added, “Just close the borders for a year and you’ll see the result”. Zelensky’s arguments have been repeated by other members of his government, including Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal, who asserted, “It is unbearable for us that some of the Russians kill and rape people in our country, while the other part lives a comfortable life in  the West, goes on vacation, and enjoys the dolce vita”.

The Ukrainian arguments were most successful in Europe’s east, which has long had a fraught relationship with Russia. The Baltic states, Finland, Poland, and the Czech Republic embraced the concept of visa bans, whereas France and Germany have been less enthusiastic. On September 9, however, the EU sprang into action and suspended the EU's visa facilitation agreement with Russia. And even this was not severe enough for four European countries—Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland—which took the further step of banning all Russian nationals from entering their countries, starting September 19.

The visa bans, however, are only one of the ways that EU countries have made access difficult or impossible for Russians. There are now three kinds of obstacles for Russian passport holders. The first is the difficulty of getting a Schengen visa. Russians traveling for “nonessential” reasons will face a lot of difficulties getting tourist visas, and for most of them it is now out of reach. (The EU makes an exception for family members of EU citizens, journalists, dissidents, and civil society representatives.) Second are the barriers faced by those who already have visas. As of now, all land crossings from Russia to Europe have been blocked. The third barrier is perhaps the most concerning of all. In several countries, Russians who already settled in Europe have been targeted by the authorities, and it has become more and more difficult for them to continue to live abroad. In August, for example, Estonia ceased issuing temporary residence permits and study visas for Russian citizens, and the Russians who were granted a permit by another country were told they couldn’t work in Estonia. Also in August, the Latvian Ministry of the Interior proposed postponing any residence permits to Russian and Belarussian citizens until June 30, 2023. Meanwhile, 761 Russians in Latvia have had their residence permits annulled since the start of the war, without explanation.

Some European countries, including the Czech Republic, Ireland, Latvia, Malta, Portugal, and Spain, have also moved to suspend investor visas for Russians. Outside of the Schengen zone, Montenegro, which has traditionally maintained friendly relations with Russia, has meanwhile announced plans to follow the EU path, proposing to end visa-free travel for Russian citizens. And all Russians living abroad have been affected by the ban on Russia-issued credit cards imposed by Mastercard and Visa.

European governments have offered several explanations for these drastic actions. EU Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell has said that the growing number of Russians arriving in Europe since mid-July “has become a security risk” for European countries bordering Russia. The European Commission’s guidelines on stricter visa processing for Russian citizens, issued on September 9, state that “there continues to be a credible risk that persons claiming to travel for tourism purposes could promote propaganda supporting Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, or engage in other subversive activities to the detriment of the EU”. In public statements, Latvian President Egils Levits has gone even further. “Is it politically and morally justifiable”, he asked in mid-August, “while the Russian army kills and burns in Ukraine, Russian tourists relax peacefully in Europe?” Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu has been similarly blunt. “We cannot act as if there is no genocidal war in some areas of life”, Reinsalu said in early August. “They are citizens of a country fighting a genocidal war. . . . The sanctions should affect the whole of Russian society”. It is certainly true that these visa bans will have a profound effect on Russian society. But their effects are unlikely to play out in the way European officials are hoping.

Whose Exiles?

One of the consequences of the long and tormented history of Russian emigration in the twentieth century was the emergence of “other Russia”. Used to refer to the vibrant exile communities that took shape in the West during the communist years, the concept evoked the idea that the best and brightest who left Russia—intellectuals, artists, industrialists, writers, aristocrats, and members of the church—escaped in order to be untainted by the corruption of the Soviet system. The other Russia was, of course, an imaginary vision of the country, but it was a highly appealing idea for those who lived in the Soviet Union.

Throughout the Cold War, the West helped promote that concept, including through U.S. media enterprises sponsored by the United Kingdom and the United States—Radio Liberty, Voice of America, and BBC—which helped to keep alive and cultivate connection between the Soviet citizens and the other Russia. Not least, these outlets also employed Russian emigres and gave them a voice. They were also part of a conscious Cold War strategy developed by George Kennan and others.

During the Soviet years, the Kremlin took the concept of the other Russia very seriously. The KGB targeted Russians who tried to emigrate and who had already emigrated using all methods, from assassinations to disinformation, to undermine their activities. By contrast, Russia’s first democratic president, Boris Yeltsin, sought to enlist the support of the other Russia in his effort to destroy the remains of communist rule. Notably, he made a direct appeal to Russian emigres to help build a new state, and he granted the Russian Service of Radio Liberty permission to open a bureau in Moscow a week after the failure of the KGB-led putsch in August 1991.

When he came to power, Putin also took the other Russia seriously, but for the opposite reasons as Yeltsin: returning to the worldview of his Soviet predecessors, he saw Russia’s political exiles as a threat. He wanted one united Russia and couldn’t tolerate the idea of alternative versions. But Putin is also aware of the importance of the exile community and has for years tried to gain sway over it. As early as October 2001, Putin staged a congress of Russian emigres and immediately set out to take control over the crucial elements of Russian emigration, most notably the church. Thanks to Putin’s personal efforts, the Russian Orthodox Church abroad became part of the Moscow Patriarchate, and partly as a result it has now fallen in line with the Kremlin’s pro-war propaganda.

A Vanishing Opportunity

As the long history of “other Russia” makes clear, the West ignores Russia’s exiles at its peril. If Western powers are serious about containing the Russian military threat, they will need a strategy that goes beyond visa bans and facile assumptions about the “whole of Russian society”. First, European governments need to understand that there are already large Russian communities abroad, including in their own countries, thanks to the large-scale emigration during preceding decades. As important, the exile community is another battlefield—perhaps one of the main battlefields—where the fight for the hearts and minds of the Russian population is taking place. And at the moment, it is far from certain that the West is winning on this battlefield. (Indeed, in contrast to the Russians fleeing the war now, some Russians who already have citizenship in European countries are far less convinced by the anti-Putin cause; thousands of Russians, for example, took part in pro-Kremlin demonstrations in Germany on May 9, Russia’s Victory Day holiday. Those pro-Kremlin protesters already have European passports, so a visa ban will do little to address that. Someone should talk to them, and there is no better messenger than Russian journalists and Russian intellectual elite.)

Second, Western governments should have a clear strategy concerning the latest iteration of “other Russia”—the intellectual elite who left the country because of Putin’s war. The West cannot ignore the existence of this new wave or just cancel it. The invasion of Ukraine—and now Putin’s mobilization—have dramatically raised the stakes. At issue is not only how to make Russia democratic in the future, but how to help defeat its invasion of Ukraine now and make other acts of aggression impossible. And with Russia soon to close its borders to Russians trying to leave, the West may be running out of time.

The West must decide what it wants to achieve with the Russians abroad. If European governments want to help undermine the Russian war effort, they have a narrowing window to do so, with tens of thousands of Russians seeking refuge in order to avoid being sent to fight in Ukraine—before Moscow stops them. If that is Europe's objective, it must remain firmly in view as Western governments consider the applications of Russian businessmen asking for investor visas or Russian IT specialists desperately trying to relocate. Many may not have antiwar credentials, and some of them may just want to have comfortable lives in the West. But at this point in the war, the West may no longer have the luxury of ignoring them. They are an asset that can either be in Russia, helping Putin wage his war and strengthening his cyber-capabilities, or outside, contributing to Western society. If Western leaders seize this opportunity, they will be following in the footsteps of their Cold War predecessors by gaining the upper hand in the battle for Russian minds. They also could set an example of how to deal with citizens of other criminal regimes who are trying to flee their countries.

If European governments continue on their present course, however, they will instead make Russian entry to the West a privilege available only to an increasingly select few, and they will make it even harder for exiles who are trying to create a different Russia. And if they do not help those who are trying to flee now, they will simply ensure that more of them are sent, perhaps to sacrifice their lives, to fight a conflict Europe desperately wants to end. European visa bans will do nothing to change the trajectory of the war, and may instead, by leaving ordinary Russians in the cold, end up prolonging the bloodshed—and further cutting off Russians from the non-Putin world.

Andrei Soldatov is an investigative journalist and Co-Founder and Deputy Editor of, a watchdog of the Russian secret services’ activities. Andrei Soldatov is an investigative journalist and Co-Founder and Editor of They are coauthors of The Compatriots: The Brutal and Chaotic History of Russia’s Exiles, Émigrés, and Agents Abroad.

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