In one of Hollywood’s more successful 1960s comedies, a Soviet submarine runs aground near a small New England island and its leaders come ashore in search of assistance. With the casting of the soft-spoken Alan Arkin, raised in a Russian Jewish household in real life, as Soviet captain Rozanov, one might have guessed that these visitors meant no harm.
But like all Americans of that period, the islanders had been raised on Cold War-era fears of a nuclear-armed Soviet menace, and they respond with panicked hysteria. Soon the town drunk is galloping across the island shouting: “The Russians are coming, the Russians are coming” – the film’s title and a reference to the American Revolution hero Paul Revere’s storied midnight ride.
The good folks of Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia would be forgiven for invoking this same refrain in recent days, as some 300,000 Russians, mostly men, are thought to have fled the country since Moscow enacted a military mobilisation.
The vast majority have gone to countries that do not require visas, such as Georgia, Kazakhstan and Turkey. But the EU has also seen a spike in Russian arrivals, reviving the prickly debate about whether it should ban the entry of Russian citizens.
The initial, Ukraine-led push for an EU ban on Russian visas was sparked by several run-ins this past summer.
In Warsaw, a drunk Russian tourist shouted obscenities at locals and made lewd gestures, then squared off with a couple of men and took a few wild swings before paramedics wrestled him to the ground. Two weeks later, a Russian woman reportedly struck a Ukrainian girl – resulting, again, in no injuries – on a Vienna-Valencia flight.
In August, EU foreign ministers held off on a full ban and agreed to a compromise measure – suspending a 2007 visa deal with Russia and making it harder for Russians to get visas due to more paperwork and higher fees.
The Biden administration has also come out against a blanket ban, preferring to delineate between Russia’s government and its citizens and avoid closing off exit pathways for regime foes. Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia took this concern into consideration last month when they put in place a regional tourist ban that makes exceptions for truck drivers, dissidents and relatives of EU residence permit holders.
On Friday, Finland followed suit and closed Russians’ last available land route to the EU.
That same day, the EU put stricter measures in place. Now, if a draft-dodging Russian plans to stay more than 90 days, the visa will be denied. This mainly means Russians cannot give conscription avoidance as their reason for EU entry, but must instead apply for asylum.
Also, Russians can now only apply for EU visas while in Russia, not from a third country, such as Georgia. And lastly, EU border officials will more carefully assess Russians looking to enter and if the applicant could pose a security threat entry will be denied, even if they hold a valid Schengen visa. This seems wise, as top terrorism analysts have begun warning of attacks by pro-Russian partisans on western soil, in particular against Nato shipments.
But the matter is far from settled, and EU leaders are expected to discuss it further at this month’s summit in Brussels. One possible tweak is that EU member states that have bans in place allow Russian citizens to transit through their country to reach EU countries willing to accept Russians. France, Germany and European Council President Charles Michel have made clear their view that the EU should allow Russian arrivals. But Kyiv and several of its allies take a different stance.
“Russians fleeing mobilisation are not anti-war activists,” the explanatory pro-Ukraine platform Ukraine Explainers said on Twitter last week. “The vast majority remained silent for 7 months.” Rather than running, the thread continued, it was time for Russians to stand up and voice opposition to their government.
I get why many Ukrainians would prefer Russians to stay and protest. It’s understandable, given the Ukrainian suffering inflicted by Moscow in recent months. But it’s also spiteful and undemocratic.
Barring people from fleeing a government contravenes the most basic of European rights and values. And it might feel good, but it would probably benefit only Moscow. A protest-driven revolution may be a semi-regular occurrence in Ukraine (two since 2005), but it’s not in Russia, where civil society has been shut down and protesting is punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
And banning Russians from Europe would possibly further weaken the Russian opposition. Already last month, due to Latvia’s ban, Riga cancelled a planned conference of Russian investigative journalists. Meanwhile, the likeliest outcome for most Russian protesters, after a stint in prison, would be ending up on the frontline; already some have emerged from jail with draft papers.
If forced to choose, I would guess that most Ukrainians would prefer Russians dining in Vienna rather than putting Ukrainian soldiers in their crosshairs in Donetsk. And what better way to distance Moscow from the Russian people than by giving them physical – not to mention emotional and political – distance?
Regardless of their actions over the past seven months, those who flee are essentially siding with Ukraine. Telling them that they should stay and take a stand, on the other hand, is like telling workers rushing out of a blazing factory fire that they should instead employ the fire extinguishers. This would add more fuel to the fire and essentially confirm Moscow’s narrative – that the western world opposes each and every Russian.
Late in The Russians Are Coming, an islander writer named Walt shoots at the fleeing Rozanov, forcing his car to smash into a ditch. “I’m sorry, I wasn’t trying to – well, I was trying to kill you, I’ll admit that,” Walt tells a shaken Rozanov through the car window. “But it wasn’t anything personal.”
The Russian government’s actions in Ukraine have revived a Cold War mentality in the West that paints all Russians as bad guys. There are likely to be more run-ins between Russians and their critics in the weeks ahead. And some are surely deserving of international condemnation and will hopefully at some point be brought before a judge.
But let’s not make it personal. Despite their apparent acquiescence in recent months, the vast majority of Russians deserve to live in freedom. After all, isn’t that what Ukraine’s fighting for?