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Fewer EU routes to Russia as countries disagree on visa ban

Russia hawks in Europe are finding that their calls for fresh sanctions against Russia are receiving a lukewarm response.

The latest suggestion coming from the EU's eastern edge, which has long urged its allies to adopt a more tough stance toward Moscow, is to forbid Russian tourists from entering the EU in an effort to isolate the nation's higher elite from its typical vacation spots.

Officials admit there is little support for even this relatively low-cost and low-risk project, let alone harder additional measures, when European military and foreign ministers meet informally this week in Prague to begin the bloc's fall political season.

Instead, ministers are anticipated to simply come to an agreement on a political level to lengthen and increase the cost of the Russian visa application procedure. In an effort to set the tone for the meeting, Germany and France circulated a statement to EU capitals arguing that a visa restriction would only alienate the Russian people. This exposed rifts between certain western leaders and a group of largely eastern states.

"While limiting contacts with regime representatives and authorities to areas of vital EU interest, we need to strategically fight for the ‘hearts and minds’ of the Russian population — at least the segments not yet completely estranged from ‘the West," according to a memo written by Paris and Berlin.

Those arguing for a broad prohibition are irritated by the argument.

In an interview, Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas claimed that severe visa requirements for tourists "hurt Russia" but "do not hurt the European side." She asserted that the action "is “something that Russia is afraid of" because it affects the elite.

The prime minister said, "even in autocracies, citizens are still responsible for their country's deeds. We just can't check all the background of those people coming. "

The discussion has highlighted the bloc's constrained room for action as governments fret over growing energy and inflation expenses. Additionally, it portends a potential change in dynamics between EU capitals in the upcoming months.

One senior European diplomat claimed that "most low fruits" had been adopted. The diplomat continued, "it’s just that almost all options have been used and now it’s really difficult to find effective measures that don’t hurt us more." As a result, the eastern hawks are "not necessarily" losing power.

The details of this week's debate on visa restrictions are still being worked out.

According to many people with knowledge of the arrangement, ministers representing nations in favor of a comprehensive ban on tourist visas are scheduled to meet before the 27-minister gathering in Prague. According to two EU diplomats, it is unclear how firmly this coalition will press its position during the week.

Danish Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod called for the EU to adopt the "toughest line possible" on visas in an interview, saying that he personally finds it "deeply provocative that Russian tourists can spend their vacation in Europe, while Ukrainian cities are being shelled and destroyed, and war crimes are being conducted in Ukraine as we speak."

But in their memo before the summit, Germany and France—two of the EU's most powerful nations—strongly criticized the strategy.

In a joint statement, the two governments stated that they "wish to maintain a legal framework that allows in particular students, artists, scholars, and professionals — independent of whether they are at risk of prosecution on political grounds — to travel to the EU."

Additionally, Berlin and Paris issued a warning: "Against far-reaching restrictions on our visa policy, in order to prevent feeding the Russian narrative and trigger unintended rallying-around the flag effects and/or estranging future generations."

Nevertheless, the capitals emphasized that the EU must "sustain and broaden our sanctions against the Russian political, military and economic elites" and referred to support for Ukraine's military and financial needs as "a central element" of the EU's war policy.

The upshot is anticipated to be a decision to revoke the EU's deal with Moscow on visa facilitation, which has facilitated Russian requests for EU visas for years. The agreement would only be a "political agreement," as this week's meeting is only a casual get-together.

Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto said he anticipates officials will eventually need to revisit the topic in the months to come. His nation has experienced a spike in visa requests and arrivals from Russia and is now pushing for a large reduction in visas, but not an absolute ban.

In an interview, the Finnish minister stated, "My next guess is that we will come back to these visa issues because during the autumn, of course, it will be difficult to identify new possible sanctions against Russia."

Officials have, in fact, run out of options for measures to implement that would undermine the Kremlin's interests without also harming those of Europe following consecutive waves of sanctions.

The rotating EU Council chair is presently held by the Czech Republic, whose foreign minister, Jan Lipavsk, stated last week that no significant fresh penalties are currently being considered.

He told reporters, "In regard to sanctions, I think we have now moved to [a] phase when we need to be patient."  The minister also noted that some new policies might be implemented but added that "big things already happened."

However, European leaders are actively looking for fresh ways to assist Ukraine. Defense ministers assembling in Prague will talk about Josep Borrell's plan to establish an EU training mission for Ukrainian forces.

Morten Bødskov, the minister of defense for Denmark, noted that several European nations already train the Ukrainian military and that his nation wants a stronger EU coordination role. Denmark and the UK are leading a push to preserve longer-term security assistance for Kyiv.

"It will be a discussion, if the European Union will be able to finance training activities in the future," Bødskov  said.

Bødskov  suggested, among other things, expanding an EU fund now used to compensate nations that supplied arms to Ukraine. According to Bødskov, Denmark wrote Borrell with a suggestion to use that amount to pay for upcoming training and demining operations as well.

While Ukraine's military believes it is now conducting a crucial counteroffensive, ministers from all over the EU will debate in Prague about concerns about war fatigue and what that means for the bloc's strategy in Ukraine.

Additionally, as governments and voters in Europe worry more and more about their own economies, several EU capitals may lack the motivation to make dramatic foreign policy moves.

However, other government representatives disputed the idea that Europe is losing interest in punishing Russia.

If the momentum for sanctions is waning, a western European diplomat responded, "Absolutely not."

"We have clearly demonstrated all along that we were united and determined on this issue," the diplomat said, "We continue to work to fill the loopholes where they exist and to ensure the full implementation of the sanctions that have been adopted. What we have put under sanctions is considerable already. This should not be undermined in any way."

The prime minister of Estonia, Kallas, acknowledged that she is worried about war fatigue but emphasized she does not think the visa discussion signals the beginning of further rifts among EU capitals.

"Before every sanction package there is this issue that ‘now you're not united anymore," she said.  "Every time we have been united, we have surprised ourselves, but we also have negatively surprised Russia."

Meanwhile, Denmark's Bødskov cited a growing number of nations that train Ukrainian soldiers as proof that support is not waning.

"I don't feel the war fatigue," the minister declared.

However, there is a perception in certain capitals that citizens are becoming more concerned about the economy.

"There's not war fatigue among the political decision-makers," according to Finland's Haavisto, "but definitely a little bit more nervous discussion among the citizens."



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