Visa Bans on Russians Are Sanctions of Spite | Opinion

There is a new kind of Russia sanction gaining steam across the West: visa and residency bans for Russian citizens. Earlier in August, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy demanded the West ban Russians, and already Poland, Czechia, and the Baltics have begun the process of doing so. Some of these states have also said they will push for an EU-wide ban, and it is only a matter of time until such a notion gains steam in the United States as well.

This would be a pity, as these bans are naïve and misguided. They may come from a good place—a desire to end the war in Ukraine. But there is no reason to believe that they would do anything at all to achieve that goal.

In fact, these are oftentimes the worst kind of sanctions: Do SomethingTM sanctions which make the leviers feel good while doing nothing, or even making things worse.

The traditional reasoning for sanctions is that they can create pressure in the sanctioned country, and that pressure in turn induces change. But there is no reason to believe that any sort of pressure would build, or any (positive) change would result from these sanctions. A look into the details reveals why.

There are essentially four types of Russians who travel to the West: those who travel for work, students, vacationers, and those who move for marriage or family reasons.

The first group, businessmen and women, have already had their Western business ties effectively shuttered. They can't fly out of Russia to anywhere in the West and cross-border trade is grinding to a halt. At this point, a visa ban would effectively be like smashing a nail into a board when it's already flattened: pointless, and you'll probably just damage the wood.

The next group, students, would see their lives wrecked. When presented with the idea of a "Russian student," those who are supportive of these sanctions probably think of the rich children of oligarchs who are sent to private London academies. But those are a minority; the majority are solidly middle-class students who have chosen to study abroad in the West for a semester or have won spots in Western MA programs. Many of these individuals are already not supportive of the Russian government.

Furthermore, students are politically powerless in Russia. The Kremlin does not care about their opinions nor fear their wrath. The idea in the minds of some Western liberals that a sea of young people will wash the Putin regime away is pure fantasy.

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Protesters demonstrate in a march against Russian military aggression in the ongoing wars in Ukraine and Syria, on April 16, 2022 in Berlin, Germany. Adam Berry/Getty Images

The third are vacationers. Once more, supporters of these sanctions are most likely imaging oligarchs taking monthly trips to French villas. And while those oligarchs of course exist, the majority of Russian tourists who take trips to Europe and the U.S. are like many Americans who take trips to Europe: middle-class and rare. If they're banned from the West, most Russians who are at an age where they can travel for pleasure will either travel to other parts of the globe (such as Brazil) or somewhere else in Russia. If a Russian was going to take their once-a-decade trip to Germany and can't due to visa restrictions, they are not going to start a violent revolution as a result. They'll be disappointed, shrug, and go to Sochi instead.

But the fourth group is perhaps the most clear-cut. Banning visas and residence permits for Russian citizens means tearing families apart. A Russian who could be married for years to a Westerner, has followed all laws, and has no connection to their homeland other than a passport, now would be forced to return there.

Perhaps a newlywed couple intent on legally starting a life together would now be forcibly separated, with neither having done anything wrong. These individuals—expats—would have no political power whatsoever to push for any sort of change or to advocate against Putin's regime. Their lives would be ruined for nothing.

Essentially, visa and residence permit bans are sanctions of spite. Absolutely no positive change will come of them. The wealthy oligarchs will not be inconvenienced enough to attempt to take down Putin, because they are not stupid. No one is walking into the Kremlin to complain to Putin that their ski trip was cancelled. The Russian rich will continue to live well and jet off to luxury stays in Abu-Dhabi or Rio.

It is the politically weak in Russia who will suffer, like the young students desperate to get out of their country. Families will be separated. The individuals most affected, the middle class and youth, will not run to the streets and tear Putin from the Kremlin. Instead, they'll either become angry at the West or just become cynical, caring about nothing at all. There will be no building of pressure against Putin.

One can hope that Ukraine will win and support policies which will help accomplish that goal while also recognizing that things like visa bans only serve to hurt those who have no power anyway. It is not shocking that Ukraine is demanding this of the West: at this point, they understandably are throwing everything at the wall and hoping something sticks. But we do not have to do the same.

Enough with the sanctions of spite.

Anthony J. Constantini is writing his Ph.D. on Jacksonian democracy and populism at the University of Vienna in Austria. Previously he received an MA in Arms Control and Strategic Studies from St. Petersburg State University. In 2016 he was the War Room Director for the NRSC.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.