Europe is not geographically divided over Russia

Along with Estonia, Finland has been at the forefront of calls for a European Union visa ban for Russian tourists. As well as winning strong support in several EU states, the proposed ban has also drawn heavy criticism, including accusations that it amounts to a “new iron curtain”.

Such accusations are unfounded and unfair. While there are legitimate arguments against a visa ban, portraying it as a Cold War idea discounts the real issues these countries face today – and the history of their relationship with Russia.

The debate in Finland is a good example of the practical and symbolic reasoning behind the ban and the likelihood that this debate is not going away anytime soon. Despite the suspension of a previous visa facilitation agreement with Russia (which actually made it easier for Russians to obtain Schengen visas), EU foreign ministers did not impose a total ban on a meeting in Prague.

Along with Estonia, Finland has been at the forefront of calls for a European Union visa ban for Russian tourists. As well as winning strong support in several EU states, the proposed ban has also drawn heavy criticism, including accusations that it amounts to a “new iron curtain”.

Such accusations are unfounded and unfair. While there are legitimate arguments against a visa ban, portraying it as a Cold War idea discounts the real issues these countries face today – and the history of their relationship with Russia.

The debate in Finland is a good example of the practical and symbolic reasoning behind the ban and the likelihood that this debate is not going away anytime soon. Despite the suspension of a previous visa facilitation agreement with Russia (which actually made it easier for Russians to obtain Schengen visas), EU foreign ministers did not impose a total ban on a meeting in Prague.

Finland was part of the Russian Empire and was invaded by the Soviets in 1939, but it was never subject to Soviet rule – only “Finlandization”, a forced neutrality imposed by a powerful neighbor during the war cold. Finns have traditionally had a somewhat different attitude towards Russians than their Baltic neighbors, who were forcibly annexed by the Soviet Union after two decades of independence from Russia. In Finland, there was a general tendency to make a distinction between Vladimir Putin’s regime and ordinary Russians. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine this year has caused a profound change in attitude.

On July 15, just in time for the summer travel season, Russia lifted COVID-19 travel restrictions that had halted Finnish-Russian border crossings during the pandemic.

By the end of July, the number of Russians crossing the border had risen to around 6,000 a day, with the majority heading to holiday destinations elsewhere in Europe. Both Helsinki-Vantaa and Lappeenranta airports are easily accessible from St. Petersburg by private car, bus or booming luxury chauffeur service. Flying from Finland is much more convenient than the alternative route via Turkey – and this route has also been used by dissidents seeking to escape Putin’s regime as quickly as possible.

The reopening of the border has sparked a strong reaction in Finland. Today, a majority of Finns support a ban on tourist visas for Russians and believe that the fact that ordinary Russians can vacation in Europe while Russian soldiers kill Ukrainians is simply wrong. This has produced the call for tourist visa restrictions and other measures to stem the flow of tourists, while leaving other routes of travel open.

Before the pandemic, in 2019, Finland issued almost 800,000 visas to Russian citizens, or about 3,500 per working day. This year, appointments for short-term visa applications in the Schengen area, a bloc of 26 European countries with no border controls among them, had already been limited to 1,000 per day and have been further reduced to just 100 from September. Finland will instead favor other forms of mobility for people with family ties, work or student visas. The roughly 100,000 Russians with long-term multiple-entry permits will still be able to enter, as will those with Schengen visas from other states, unless other measures are taken to compensate for the lack of a ban at the EU level.

Finland juggles many sometimes conflicting responsibilities with its long border with Russia. The first and foremost responsibility of the Finnish government is national security, which large influxes of travelers could jeopardize. One reason for this is that Russia conducts covert influence operations against EU states, which, as Estonian expert Kristi Raik has noted, also use tourist travel to infiltrate. Finland has a population of 5.5 million and does not have the capacity to carry out rigorous US-style border checks for each individual with a visa.

The Finnish-Russian border is also an edge of the EU and the Schengen zone, which brings an additional responsibility for common security, but also humanitarian obligations towards potential asylum seekers. The border will soon also be one of the NATO borders, which a newly joining Finland is expected to help secure. Finally, the burden of implementing EU sanctions falls significantly on Finland, one of the main transit hubs for Russian tourists. The strengthening of Finnish customs controls revealed frequent attempts to circumvent sanctions by tourists returning to Russia on dual-use and luxury goods.

As Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto recently pointed out, Finland also does not want to become a transit country for tourists trying to circumvent the flight ban to get elsewhere in the EU. In the last week of July, around 21,500 Russian citizens crossed the Finnish border. Among them, about a third had a visa issued in Finland. This is another reason why Finland has called for a joint EU solution to restrict Russian tourism.

The recent decision by Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland to prevent the entry of Russian tourists even if they hold valid visas will further aggravate the situation at the Finnish border. As confirmed in Prague, they have every right to do so under Article 6.1(e) of the Schengen Borders Code, which allows this step if travelers are considered a threat to “national security” or “international relations” of any Member State. While the aforementioned states see it that way, Finland does not – at the moment – and has chosen not to take this step, which means that more tourists will head in this direction.

More generally, however, Finnish leaders have concluded that strong deterrence from Russia trumps the good neighborly relations they previously prioritized and goes hand in hand with strong support for Ukraine. The decision to start limiting the number of visas issued is part of a broader reconfiguration of Finland’s approach to Russia, including its pursuit of NATO membership. After two decades of efforts to positively engage Russia, which have proven fruitless, this is a necessary break with the past.

For other countries leading visa ban calls, this step is a continuation of a tougher line against a Russian threat. Estonians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Poles and Czechs understand all too well what enslavement by a repressive regime in Moscow means and what it feels like behind an iron curtain. Neither their support for Ukraine nor their advocacy for the visa ban is taken lightly.

It would be tempting to observe that, like those who have long dismissed calls for a tougher stance against Moscow as Russophobia, opponents of the visa ban who liken it to the Iron Curtain tend to come from Western Europe or Russia. But that would reinforce a flawed and dangerous logic.

The Iron Curtain may have been drawn by the Soviets from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic (in the words of British leader Winston Churchill), but it did not separate the West from the USSR. Rather, it divided what quickly became known through the inadequate shorthand of “Eastern” and “Western” Europe. The point was and is clear: division and difference, circumstances supposedly dictating the mood.

This flames of this past division erupted again in response to French President Emmanuel Macron’s speech to his ambassadors earlier this month in which he apparently called the “eastern countries” “the most warmongeringor “most warlike” in the official translation. This lazy line ignored similar positions taken, for example, by northern, central and western European states such as Finland, Estonia, Denmark, the Czech Republic and the United Kingdom. He also ignored Hungary’s more accommodating attitude towards Russia and, with tensions already high, instead fueled another line of division that overshadowed other, more conciliatory aspects of his speech.

Using the Iron Curtain metaphor or relying on antediluvian definitions of East and West now only risks reviving their logic of division in the present. At a time when unity of resolve and purpose is urgently needed against Russia and for Ukraine, easy historical and geographical determinism and the supposed divisions between Russophobic Easterners and delusional Westerners help no one except the Kremlin.

History matters, but it is not decisive. It has been encouraging to see the support for the visa ban from states like Denmark and the Netherlands, who understand their partners at the heart of this issue, and its importance for Ukraine. Hungary’s attitude towards the Putin regime is less so. The insistence of German ministers that certain military equipment produced in the West cannot be delivered to Ukraine, while that produced in the East can, remains as inexplicable as it is useless.

All of this goes to show that Europeans should debate Russia’s visa bans, arms shipments and other war responses on their real merits (practical and symbolic) and dispense with the outdated and divisive metaphors that weaken a common position against Russian revanchism. As the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre says:

“The iron curtain is but a mirror, where each half of the world reflects the other. Each turn of the screw here corresponds to a twist theand here and there, to finish, we are all screwers and screws at the same time.