Decision-makers in Brussels fail to imagine the extent to which incoming Russians could threaten national security in Eastern Europe
By failing to support the Baltic countries and Poland in their righteous quest to impose tighter travel restrictions on Russians, Brussels inadvertently triggered the destruction of Schengen as we know it.
The east-west divide over Russian tourists’ shunning adds yet another controversy to a long list that questions both the rationality and survival of the border-free travel zone, writes Emerging Europe.
Thanks to some countries pouring a drink for the Russians with one hand and judging them with the other, the watered-down version of a total tourist visa ban that much of Central and Eastern Europe supports amounts to a simple slap on the cheek.
There are still ways and means for the Kremlin’s foot soldiers to reach almost any destination they choose within the European Union (EU).
The EU is scrambling to pretend it has taken a tough enough stance on Russia by ending a visa-free agreement and closing its airspace to Russian planes. As it stands, the only additional red tape Russian visa applicants will have to go through is to pay €45 more in consular fees and submit a few additional documents, such as bank statements and no-objection certificates (NOCs), which can be obtained in minutes.
As for access to Europe by air, Russians can reach aviation hubs such as Istanbul, Dubai and Tbilisi, from where they can continue to wherever they want.
Decision-makers in Brussels fail to imagine the extent to which the incoming Russians could threaten national security in Eastern Europe. The concerns raised by countries bordering Russia are not only born of animosity towards the aggressor, but also of the likelihood that Russia’s FSB security service could easily use humanitarian reasons as a pretext to infiltrate the continent with its own operatives. If this happens, the former Warsaw Pact countries will be the lowest hanging fruit for Moscow.
Even Finland seems to have a soft spot for Russian expatriates, although Russian President Vladimir Putin has failed to intimidate the country into withdrawing its bid for NATO membership. Crowds of cars with Russian license plates passed through the checkpoints without much hindrance until recently. The border guards did not ask many questions of the Russians as long as they were provided with valid documentation.
Unless Europe comes together and all EU countries are on the same page in containing Russia, the already protracted war in Ukraine will continue to rage with no end in sight. Now is not the time for double deals or balancing acts while Russians of combat age continue to flood the EU and former Soviet republics.
Since the announcement of the mobilization in Russia, the way in which those who meet the requirements have been absconding en masse from the military authorities shows that the Russians are far from being as patriotic or loyal as they make themselves out to be. The sheer revulsion that most of them display for their involvement in the war stands in stark contrast to how heroically ordinary Ukrainians view the situation. It is worth recalling that both men and women throughout Ukraine had no qualms about dropping everything and taking up arms to defend their homeland.
Therefore, it is not surprising that Kyiv is slowly but surely taking back the illegally annexed territories.
Another reason why slamming the EU’s door on Russians should be preferred to stricter entry requirements is that the vast majority of supposed “tourists” aren’t just heading to Europe for a weekend getaway, they’re planning to hang out aimlessly until the war closes that door too.
With Russia’s economy in shambles and much of its former middle class reduced to destitution, most newcomers won’t have the means to keep their heads above water for months.
The Kremlin’s close allies in the EU wrongly and baselessly claim that imposing a visa ban on Russian visitors outside the summer tourist season is irrelevant. However, this is far from the truth. In fact, many of the country’s well-paid workers take leave from November to February, when the weather is at its most severe, to spend the winter somewhere warmer.
There is some chance that such a measure could force more Russians to confront politicians at home and lead to more serious civil unrest. Civilians will essentially have their backs against the wall and nothing more to lose. It’s now or never when it comes to taking concrete action and influencing the outcome of the war.
The next few months could either support or break Ukraine depending on how the West plays its cards. There are still plenty of countries in the Global South that Russian passport holders can visit freely, many of which boast year-round tropical climates and a wickedly low cost of living. It would be in Europe’s best interest, as a collective, to identify the most sought-after vacation hotspots and actively discourage them from hosting Russians.
The Maldives, Sri Lanka, Morocco and Tunisia are some notable examples where the EU still has influence. As these refuges are no longer available and the Central Asian republics begin to adopt open hostility towards their former colonizers, it will be Russia, not Europe, that will face an extremely intolerable and bleak winter.
Mobilization efforts are by no means concentrated only in the big cities, but also extend to the Far East. This impoverished and neglected region is seen as fertile ground by the Russian government, whose inhabitants are much easier to indoctrinate and bait with blood money.
The ongoing protests in the westernmost metropolises have a chance to turn into a pan-Russian resistance movement, especially as Siberians see through the Kremlin’s disproportionate intelligence and weak combat capabilities. A similar argument applies to Central Asian migrants who are tricked into the war in exchange for Russian citizenship. They do not suspect that this passport is becoming more and more useless with each passing day and therefore it is not worth risking their lives for it.
From the point of view of a third-party traveler, the very concept of invisible borders and free internal movement is an absolute godsend. The ability to cross the length and breadth of Europe with just one sticker in your passport still seems too good to be true.
Still, friction between the continent’s constituent parts at different ends of the political spectrum, combined with a series of recent geostrategic challenges exacerbated by the removal of checks and balances, casts serious doubt over whether Schengen can remain viable for long.
Violating the sovereignty of independent nation states to the extent that they have no discretion over who enters their territory is always a recipe for disaster, and we have already seen this in 2015. At the indirect invitation of then German Chancellor Angela Merkel, millions economic migrants from the Middle East and North and Sub-Saharan Africa region
made their way to Europe under the guise of refugees. Unbridled migration continues to this day, as virtually anyone fleeing poverty from the aforementioned geographic areas can make a false asylum claim at the first point of entry into the EU and head for more prosperous jurisdictions.
Having miraculously weathered the people-smuggling crisis that fueled Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic that threw all mobility privileges out the window, the EU now faces a giant that wants to expose cracks in that model .
Russian adventurers use visas issued by member countries, which they perceive as the weakest link, allowing them to reach a completely different country, where they are not always welcome. It is absurd that once Romania and Bulgaria become part of the Schengen area someday, visa holders will be allowed to spend time in Scandinavia or Switzerland for example, where the required minimum means of living are significantly higher.
Putin’s supporters are turning against him after being drafted into a war that has made Russia’s military an international laughing stock. To make up for the failure and breathe life into his regime, the outgoing dictator may have set his sights on an increasingly fractured Europe.
Right-wing populists coming to power in countries across the continent serve as Moscow’s Trojan horse in their shared distaste for the EU. By failing to support the Baltic countries and Poland in their righteous quest to impose strict travel restrictions on Russians, Brussels inadvertently triggered the destruction of Schengen as we know it.
There is no telling how far the Eastern Bloc will go to restore regional stability.