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Why Is the West Now Lowering the Iron Curtain?

Ostensibly, EU sanctions on Russia are aimed to weaken Russia’s war effort and support for Putin. But restrictions on private citizen’s family cars and personal cash do not achieve this. Instead, they seem to be part of an effort to simply keep Russians out.
By
Robeznieki

Robeznieki, Latvia – September 14, 2022: Latvia – Belarus border, where a fence is being built against illegal refugees entering the European Union from the side of Belarus © Radowitz / shutterstock.com

November 27, 2023 01:56 EDT
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The sanctions war between the West and Russia is gaining momentum. As of November 2023, the EU has developed 12 sanctions packages against Moscow.

In recent months, European countries have increasingly adopted restrictions aimed at reducing contact between Western and Russian citizens. This is difficult to explain with the purpose of the sanctions — to economically weaken Russia and force it to make peace with Ukraine.

The EU’s increasingly restrictive travel sanctions

Recall that back on February 25, 2022, the day after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the European Council imposed visa sanctions on Russian diplomats and businessmen, who from that moment lost simplified access to the EU. The EU extended such restrictions to all Russians in September 2022.

Furthermore, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania and Poland banned visas at the national level and restricted border crossings for Russian citizens with EU visas, citing “a serious threat to our public security.” To put it bluntly, after the introduction of restrictions on money transfers to the EU for Russians, as well as the refusal of Western insurance companies to cooperate with Russian partners, obtaining Schengen visas for most Russian citizens is now impossible.

As early as the February and March of 2022, all EU member states, as well as the US and Canada, banned Russian airlines from flying to their countries. Russia adopted retaliatory sanctions. Air travel is now much more expensive and time-consuming, requiring additional connections to avoid banned airspace.

For now, however, Russia still has a land border with the EU, which runs through the territory of Finland, the Baltic States and Norway. However, all of them have restricted the issuance of visas and the movement of Russians with transit visas.

On March 2, 2022, the EU announced that it was banning key Russian banks from SWIFT, the most important global financial messaging system. It also prohibited the importation of EU-denominated banknotes into Russia. On March 5, leading credit card companies Visa and Mastercard ceased operations in Russia. On March 11, the US government also banned the importation of its currency to Russia. A little later, in April 2022, the EU extended its restrictions to all other official currencies of EU member states.

These measures primarily hit, not Russian citizens, but citizens of other countries who wanted to enter Russia. However, the EU did not object to its people exchanging euros for US Dollars and taking out the amounts of cash they needed in American currency. This proves that the goal was to make traveling to Russia more expensive — after all, in order to eventually buy the Russian ruble, people in European countries had to pay an additional fee for the double conversion.

On October 6, the EU adopted the eighth package of sanctions, providing for a ban on exports of Russian products, including vehicles, to Europe. In July 2023, German authorities interpreted this clause as a ban not only on imports for the purpose of sale but also on the temporary entry of cars with Russian license plates. Both Russian car owners who had the right to be in the EU (for example, family members of European citizens) and EU citizens who had cars with Russian registration came under threat. These cars began to be seized and confiscated.

On September 8, 2023, the European Commission (EC) issued a clarification confirming that Russian-registered personal vehicles were not allowed in the EU. This measure applies to all vehicles with Russian license plates. Moreover, the clarification stated that Russians are prohibited from importing not only cars into the EU but also suitcases, bags, purses, leather and fur products, cosmetics, semi-precious and precious stones, cell phones, cameras and laptops. EC spokesman Balazs Ujvari later said that EU countries should not confiscate Russians’ clothes, but insisted that this should be done with regard to cars.

EC spokesman Daniel Ferri emphasized that member states must strictly enforce the ban on importing cars specifically, even if the vehicle is not actually “imported” but crosses the border only for tourism or short-term stays. Ferri did not specify whether there could be exceptions to the obligation of national authorities to confiscate cars of Russian citizens, for example, if these citizens permanently reside in an EU member state or enjoy refugee or humanitarian status.

While Italy, Spain, Austria and a number of other Western European countries immediately announced that they would not seize Russian cars, the countries bordering Russia — Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania and Finland immediately agreed with the EC’s clarification. Moreover, only Finland agreed to respect an exception for EU citizens and Russians permanently residing in that country. Moreover, on November 2, 2023, Latvia formalized this by amending its law on road traffic.

In the near future, it appears that countries that have land borders with Russia will close their border crossings under the controversial pretext of “security.” Thus, slowly but surely, the West is lowering the “iron curtain” with Russia. This is fundamentally different from the situation in the 1930s, when it was the USSR that closed itself from the West. 

Travel bans are achieving the opposite of their stated purpose

Let’s try to understand why the West has chosen such a policy and how it will help to establish peace in Ukraine and democratize Russia.

The EU’s official explanation is that sanctions are aimed at weakening the Russian government’s ability to finance a war of aggression against Ukraine and are designed to “minimise the negative consequences on the Russian population”; “sanctions are designed to maximise the negative impact for the Russian economy, while limiting the consequences for EU businesses and citizens.”

That is, formally, the European Council declares that it does not aim to collectively punish the Russian population and or restrict EU citizens in their contacts. Its goal is to weaken the Kremlin’s economic and military-technical power and force it to make peace. Thus, there is a contradiction between the spirit of the sanctions originally laid down by the European Council and its interpretation by overzealous European law enforcers.

How has the actual massive visa ban on Russians and air travel ban advanced the peace process? If one assumes that Russian business has the ability to influence President Vladimir Putin (which is not really true, because Russian business is completely dependent on the government, not the other way around), then one would assume that these restrictions were anti-business. But this is also not true, because those rich Russians who are not under sanctions and own real estate in Europe have, as a rule, residence permission in these countries; they do not need a visa. Unlike to ordinary people, the additional costs associated with longer flights are of no consequence to the rich.

Ordinary people bear the brunt of the difficulties. Among these are representatives of the Russian opposition, who previously had the ability to run to one of Moscow’s nine airports in order to escape retaliation after a protest. It is interesting that after the air travel ban, protests in Russia virtually ceased.

The opposition has no longer the moral right to call on Russians to take to the streets, as that call is tantamount to imprisonment for a minimum of five years.

Could Russia’s economy and military potential really have been hit by sanctions on private Russian cars driving into the EU? There is not and has never been any significant importation of Russian cars into the EU. There has always been the reverse process — exportation of cars to Russia.

Given the visa restrictions already existing, the car ban only affects a limited number of Russian citizens, mostly permanent residents of EU countries with residence permits as well as Europeans with residence permits in Russia, who need a car with Russian license plates to travel safely around Russia. It is unlikely that they have any influence over Putin or the Russian authorities.

What do these people do now? They cannot neglect their families. They have to take a train or hitchhike to the Russian border, cross the border on foot and take a cab to the city of Pskov in order to access the rest of Russia by train or plane. And the ticket price will go to a Russian state-owned railroad company or airline, which in turn pays into the Russian budget.

And there are many such people who have families on both sides of the border. About 1,000 Karelian families moved to Finland from Russian Karelia in the 1990s. All of them have relatives in Russia. Let alone the several million Russian-speaking families in the Baltic States and Germany.

The real purpose of the restrictions

So, what effect have such sanctions really achieved?

Bans on the transportation of euros, or of Russian travelers’ cell phones or cosmetics, as well as the possible complete closure of borders with Russia — these measures are all of a piece. Their goal is to reduce contacts, to isolate Russians from the West and the West from Russia. In reality, these measures hurt those who have family ties on both sides of the border. This is completely contrary to the EU’s humanitarian policy, which prioritizes the maintenance of kinship ties.

Are we sure that these people blame the Russian authorities, who started the war with Ukraine, for the new difficulties and financial costs they are now having to bear? My personal experience suggests that such people are in the minority. People’s thinking is much more straightforward: It is the fault of the one who introduced the restrictions.

Most people who have trouble traveling across the border are convinced that they are not personally to blame for the Kremlin’s waging war against Ukraine and therefore should not be held accountable for its actions. And they begin to wonder whether Putin is right when he claims that the West simply hates Russians. Thus, the measures do not weaken support for Putin, but for Europe.

It is possible that those officials who made such decisions in Brussels or Berlin were simply mistaken. Perhaps they did not realize that the interests of permanent residents of the EU, including their own citizens, would actually be affected. Perhaps they did not realize that these measures would have no effect on the Kremlin or the war in Ukraine.

But why were these decisions so enthusiastically supported by European politicians and political analysts, especially in Eastern European countries? Perhaps authorities in countries bordering Russia want to use the moment to detach their fellow citizens from Russia, some of whom view it as a “historical homeland”. What does this have to do with the purpose of the sanctions?

Where did the idea that the West should close itself off from Russia by minimizing contacts come from? I think the main reason is quite prosaic. In January 2023, Mark Temnitsky, a journalist and staff member of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, published an article in Euronews entitled “The European Union should stop issuing tourist visas to Russians.” In reality, by that time Schengen visas to Russians were practically no longer issued. The article was really about something else, which Temnitsky reveals in the anecdotes he cites.

During a trip to Montenegro, Temnitsky climbed one of the local mountains. He writes,

We reached into our bag and pulled out a Ukrainian flag. A customary tradition, we always take a photo with it during our annual trips.

We took a second to pose with our flag at the fortress and requested a neighbouring tourist to take our picture. 

But this encounter was different. As we stood for a photo, another group of tourists gave us unpleasant looks.

“Ukrainians,” one of them snarled in Russian, eyes cold with contempt.

We quickly finished taking our photo, packed our flag, and descended down the fortress. As our group continued on our walk, the discomfort among us became palpable as we came across additional Russian tourists who gave us similar stares.

Temnitsky was offended that the onlooker assumed he was a Ukrainian. But Temnitsky did not check this person’s documents, either. The tourist could have been a citizen of any of the former Soviet republics, including the Baltic States, as well as a citizen of Israel, the United States, Germany, Finland, or anywhere there is a Russian-speaking community. But he concluded that these were tourists from Russia.

Then the author went to Greece and Cyprus, where this story repeated itself. On this basis, he concludes: “This is Russia today. Over the past 19 months, many have mislabeled the Russian invasion of Ukraine as ‘Putin’s war,’ blaming the current circumstances on the Russian president.” According to him, all 145 million Russian citizens support the war. As proof, he cites the results of opinion polls conducted by Russian sociological services controlled by the Kremlin. 

The author’s conclusion is quite simple and radical: Russians should be punished for the actions of their government. Vacations and trips abroad are a luxury, and banning Russian citizens from traveling abroad will make them think twice about the actions of their government. It’s hard to imagine Temnitsky, an Atlantic Council staffer, could seriously believe what he’s saying — since the Atlantic Council regularly accuses Russia of rigging elections and being out of touch with voters. So, either the Atlantic Council is spreading disinformation and Russia remains a democratic state, or we should recognize that the author of this Euronews article is, to put it mildly, not logical in his inferences. His message is based on plain xenophobia.

Xenophobia in the form of Russophobia, as well as growing isolationist sentiments towards Russia, also based on fear of “outsiders,” is the main reason why the West is now lowering the Iron Curtain. There is simply no other explanation. The restrictions on travelers in no way bring victory over Putin’s Russia, but on the contrary contribute to the consolidation of anti-Western sentiment among the victims of this policy.

One can, of course, accuse the West of incompetence, but then the conclusions are even sadder. But if Western countries, whose main value is tolerance and freedom, begin to be guided by xenophobia in the development of political decisions, it is bad, first of all, for the West itself. 

Openness has always been the main weapon of the free world. We have always been strong because we profess freedom and are not afraid of the truth. We have carried this truth to the whole world, including Russia, and in the 1980s and 90s, it yielded results. Today, with the propaganda that characterizes the main official Russian media, the openness and accessibility of the West with its free information and values is becoming more and more important. Let us not forget that, although reforms in the USSR began with the coming to power of an adequate leader, Soviet public consciousness by that time had already been was already prepared for changes. And it was the openness of the West that played a key role in achieving that.

[Anton Schauble edited this piece.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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