What travel restrictions is the EU imposing on Russians? | Russia-Ukraine war News

Before the start of the Ukraine war, the European Union was a popular port of call for Russians.

Under the terms of a 2007 visa deal, negotiated when relations were significantly warmer, they enjoyed preferential access to the bloc and could easily visit for tourism or business.

But since February 24, when Russia launched its invasion, border controls have tightened as the Kremlin’s relations with Western nations plummeted to a post-Cold War low.

Within days, the EU banned flights to and from Russia.

As the war dragged on, the bloc moved on.

In early September, it suspended the 2007 visa agreement.

The cost of a single visa rose from 35 euros ($34) to 80 euros ($77), and Russians would now have to provide additional documents and expect longer processing times.

On September 19, the Baltic states and Poland closed their doors to Russian tourists and condemned Finland not to join them. Days earlier, their governments had released a statement citing security concerns.

“People are coming with the aim of undermining the security of our countries, since three quarters of Russian citizens support Russia’s aggressive war in Ukraine,” it said.

On Sept. 21, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced partial mobilization, a move that sent thousands to the borders to flee fearing conscription.

Most went to Georgia and Kazakhstan, but some went to Finland.

On September 30, Finland also banned Russian tourists and closed the last direct route into the bloc.

The moves do not amount to an outright ban but reflect the deep deterioration in EU-Russia relations.

They also highlight divisions within the bloc — while those close to Russia have taken action, others like Germany and France say blanket restrictions are feeding into Moscow’s anti-Western narrative and risk alienating future generations of Russians.

INTERACTIVE - RUSSIAN NATIONALS EU
(Al Jazeera)

Here’s what you need to know:

What are the current EU-wide regulations?

The EU imposed flight bans on February 27, meaning Russians would have to reach the bloc via third countries.

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As the conflict intensified, discussions about how to proceed became entangled in disagreements.

More than six months later, EU leaders agreed to suspend a historic visa facilitation deal with Moscow, ending 15 years of privileged access for Russian nationals.

The 2007 visa deal was struck as both sides expressed hope that smoother travel would contribute to “steady development” in economic, humanitarian, cultural and scientific ties.

The visa application fee has increased and Russians are now required to provide additional documentation. The rules for issuing visas are stricter and processing times longer.

However, Russian nationals can still technically enter the EU via third countries and obtain a 90-day short-stay visa, subject to a successful application. They can also move freely within most of the Schengen area once inside.

Natia Seskuria, a Russia expert and associate fellow at the UK’s Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies (RUSI) think-tank, told Al Jazeera that the suspension of the 2007 deal “didn’t change much in terms of practicability.” .

“So many countries – especially the Baltic States [Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia] – have decided to act individually,” Seskuria said.

“This lack of consensus has put European states in a somewhat chaotic situation, because now there are … individuals [national-level] Bans against Russians, but there are also some countries that are doing their business quite normally, except that it has become more difficult for Russians to get visas,” she said.

People wait at the border crossing with Russia in Narva, Estonia, on September 18, 2022
The Schengen area includes most EU countries plus Iceland, Norway, Switzerland and Liechtenstein [File: Janis Laizans/Reuters]

What additional restrictions have some countries introduced?

There are increasing calls from Ukrainian leaders and those in the east of the bloc for a total ban on Russian tourists.

Several Member States have imposed additional travel restrictions of their own.

Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Finland announced in September that they would refuse entry to Russians on Schengen tourist visas, with exceptions for those in need of humanitarian assistance or visiting families.

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Other countries, including Slovakia and the Czech Republic, announced they would not issue humanitarian visas to men trying to escape Moscow’s military service.

Those moves were informally approved by the EU at a summit in Prague weeks earlier, with the bloc’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell acknowledging that “business as usual” could not continue for member states bordering Russia.

A total travel ban “would be quite a radical decision, but … the times we live in and what Ukrainians are going through are very extreme,” Seskuria told Al Jazeera.

“Responsibility must be imposed on Russian citizens.

“And for the EU when the borders are open [to Russians] You will get a lot of people [arriving] … who voted for it [President Vladimir] Putin and who are happy if he wins the war in Ukraine but just don’t want to fight and risk their own lives.”

Which countries oppose stricter measures?

Two of the EU’s most powerful members, France and Germany, have defied calls for a travel ban and continue to issue short-stay visas, in part to ensure Russian dissidents are given an escape route.

Both have warned that draconian measures could trigger “rally-around-the-flag” effects in Russia.

Still, Russians are finding it harder to get to Europe after the EU said on September 30 that members should not accept visa applications from non-EU nationals and direct flights remain suspended.

Petr Tůma, a visiting fellow at the Europe Center of the US-based think tank Atlantic Council, told Al Jazeera that a total tourist ban is “a long way off” given the divisions that exist.

However, he predicted that the likelihood of such a move would only increase the longer the conflict dragged on, and urged the EU to stand ready to offer protection to those who really need it.

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“After more than half a year of war, even ordinary Russians have to take some kind of responsibility… and may still have to pay this very limited price,” Tuma said.

“But it is crucial that if the EU does ‘A’, the tourist visa ban, it must also do ‘B’ and grant exceptions for people who need them, such as dissidents,” he added.

“We can’t close the door [completely] … this has to be done with some care.”

Travelers leave after crossing the border with Russia at a border checkpoint in Georgia on September 28, 2022
Hundreds of thousands of Russians have attempted to flee the country following Putin’s “partial mobilization” campaign, many towards neighboring Georgia and Kazakhstan [File: Irakli Gedenidze/Reuters]

How many Russians have joined the EU since the war began?

It is not clear how many of those arriving stayed in the EU or where, if any, they stayed.

According to the bloc’s Frontex border agency, more than 1.4 million Russian citizens have entered the EU via its land borders since Moscow’s offensive began on February 24. Roughly the same number also returned to Russia from the EU in the same period.

The similarity in the numbers suggests that at least some of the trips were recreational — for tourism, for example — rather than for resettlement in the bloc.

Almost 37 percent, more than 519,000, of the crossings from Russia to Finland, while about a quarter of those leaving the country for Europe, about 360,000, entered Estonia.

The number of crossings overall has fallen in recent weeks after the EU tightened entry rules, member states bordering Russia imposed their own new restrictions and Russian authorities reportedly tried to block those trying to get in ahead of the mobilization campaign escape.

According to the latest Frontex data, 24,218 Russian citizens entered the EU on October 10-16. That’s 1,400 fewer than the week before and less than half the September 26-October 2 total. Most already had residence permits or visas, while others held dual citizenship.

Russians cross the border into Georgia.
People walk to the Verkhny Lars border crossing between Georgia and Russia on September 28 [File: AP]

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