A visa ban would fall into Moscow’s trap

September 6, 2022

Stripping ordinary Russians of the ability to leave Russia will hinder rather than help.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former political prisoner and CEO of Yukos Oil company, is the author of “The Russia Conundrum: How the West Fell for Putin’s Power Gambit – and How to Fix It.”

As Russian President Vladimir Putin’s barbarism in Ukraine continues after more than six months, it’s natural — and necessary — to search for tactics that will step up the pressure on his regime and further isolate it.

As such, I understand why Ukraine, the Baltic states and Finland initiated a discussion on an outright ban against Schengen visas for Russians. The argument goes that those who support the war must be punished — which is reasonable — while those who speak out against it must go back and fight inside their own country — which is much less so.

Ultimately, if the strategic imperative is to support Ukraine and, ideally, fatally weaken Putin’s regime, then stripping ordinary Russians of the ability to leave Russia will hinder rather than help.

That’s why, despite my revulsion at Putin’s war, I was pleased when, earlier last week, European Union foreign ministers declined to agree to a blanket ban on visas for Russians. Debate on the issue will undoubtedly rumble on, but in the fight against the crooked Kremlin dictator, such a ban would be a misstep — no matter how tempting.

I have no sympathies whatsoever toward the regime or those who support it. Quite the opposite — I want to see effective, strategic measures employed against them.

But in this respect, dropping an iron curtain on Russians would be a fundamental error. And I say this having spent a decade in Putin’s prisons, before being banished from the country and warned that should I return, I’d be handed a life sentence. Even here in the West, Putin’s special services continue to show me pesky, and not entirely harmless, attention.

I agree that Russians who support the war must be held to account. No one should go easy on the cheerleaders and mouthpieces of crimes against humanity.

For those who oppose it, however, the notion that unarmed people can bring down a regime that’s prepared to lock them up and poison and gun them down has yet to be corroborated by historical example.

Freedom came to the countries of Eastern Europe, including the Baltic states, through the courage and solidarity of their people — but only after the Soviet authorities chose not to intervene. Mikhail Gorbachev, to his credit, refused to send tanks into Central Europe, but all previously attempted revolutions were swiftly and brutally crushed. And just recently, in Putin’s client-state of Belarus, we saw a ruthless crackdown against peaceful protest.

Banning Russians opposed to the war from entering Europe will simply increase the number of Putin’s victims. The proposed visa restrictions would present Russian journalists, opposition politicians, activists and public figures with a terrible choice — either support the war and live as usual, or speak out against it, be deprived of a normal life and end up in prison or worse. Denied an escape route, not many will choose a path of defiance and resistance.

Leaving is not an easy option. Exiles leave behind parents and children; they experience diminished living standards and status. And yet, hundreds of thousands of Russians have left their country in disgust at Putin’s war. Among them are civic activists, independent journalists and human rights defenders whose freedom, physical safety and lives were in danger in Russia because of their stance against the war.

In the fight against Putin’s dictatorship, these people aren’t the West’s enemies, but their allies. And they — we — can be more effective allies if given the “fire escape” of a European visa.

That’s not to say it should be business as usual — I am certainly not advocating that it should remain easy for Russians aligned to the Kremlin to spend their dirty money on shopping trips abroad. But a ruthlessly restrictive visa policy would remove a vital safety valve for Putin’s opponents.

After all, when the Putin regime falls, Russia will remain. Will the regime be replaced by a responsible, democratic government and civil society capable of being a constructive partner? Or will it be more of the same — authoritarian, led by so-called hard men and capable of drifting similarly, and perhaps inevitably, toward the fascistic aggression we’re dealing with today?

Russians who have contact with the Western model will be crucial in determining whether post-Putin Russia emulates it or continues to seek its destruction. By preventing engagement between people, the West risks helping Putin prolong today’s impasse beyond the life of the regime itself.

Some have also argued that Russians like me should stay quiet on the visa issue. But such an argument, intentionally or not, does what Putin would like most — help him rally the Russian people around the lie of a “hostile Western world.”

We need to prove to Russian society that Putin and his propagandists are lying about the West’s hostility, that Putin’s aggression is unprovoked and unjustifiable. A visa ban would merely hand the propagandists ammunition. It’s Putin’s fascist regime that believes in collective guilt and punishment, and if Western democracies undermine the belief in individual freedoms and responsibilities that are their ethical core, we will only bolster that regime.

A more sensible visa policy, therefore, would seek to incentivize and offer protection to those who refuse to support aggression, for instance, by signing anti-war declarations, or refusing to participate in militaristic events.

As for legitimate fears that regime agents of various kinds might slip through, robust measures must, of course, be put in place — but not through politically counterproductive and ethically compromised blanket prohibitions.

Putin already has no shortage of agents and useful idiots in the West. They’ve helped him fund his war with long and meandering discussions about an “immediate and total” ban on Russian gas deliveries and the blocking of oil shipments to the global market. Instead, there should have been an immediate introduction of duties on Russian gas, fertilizers and any oil products containing Russian hydrocarbons — and that’s not even mentioning the pitiful long-term energy “strategy” that’s led Europe to such humiliating dependence and vulnerability.

Western democracies have finally woken up to the fact they are at war with a totalitarian foe. But in addition to backing Ukraine militarily, to win the fight, democracies must develop energy independence and reindustrialize sectors that ensure national security, restricting the technological capabilities of the Putin regime.

These are the tasks that must be undertaken if the West is to win — not a blanket ban against all Russians.

The flight of highly educated and dynamic individuals who oppose the war is a brain drain from Russia, undermining the regime’s resilience. Russian citizens who act against Putin’s criminal aggression — students and professionals, dissidents and democrats, looking to find a place in the world — aren’t the problem. They are part of the solution.

We are not enemies; we are allies.

First published at POLITICO