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Kremlin sharply critical of Ukraine’s call for travel ban on Russians

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, shown at a news conference in December while Vladimir Putin speaks, said any attempt to isolate Russia will be unsuccessful. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP)

RIGA, Latvia — The Kremlin on Tuesday condemned Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s call to ban all Russian travelers from visiting Western countries to stop Russia from annexing any more Ukrainian territory.

“The only possible attitude we can have is extremely negative,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists Tuesday, after Zelensky told The Washington Post that all Russians, including tourists, business executives, students and others, should be denied visas to travel to the West.

Zelensky said that “the most important sanctions are to close the borders — because the Russians are taking away someone else’s land.” Russians should “live in their own world until they change their philosophy,” he added.

Finland, Estonia and Latvia have either expressed concerns about Russian tourists traveling to Europe during Russia’s brutal war, or have stopped issuing visas. The leaders of countries in the European Union are expected to discuss the issue later this month, raising the prospect of a sanction that would hurt those in Russia’s middle class, who love to vacation in France, Italy and Spain and to send their children to top universities overseas.

Peskov said such ideas “smell bad” and that any attempt to isolate Russia or Russians has no prospect of success.

“In fact, this is a statement that speaks for itself. Of course, most likely, their irrational thinking has gone over the top in this case,” Peskov said. He reiterated the Kremlin’s line on sanctions — that they hurt Western countries, especially Europe, more than Russia, as Russia seeks to widen any cracks between the United States and Europe on sanctions.

“Zelensky needs to understand that European countries, which … have been trying to punish Russia … have started paying the price,” Peskov said. “Both the countries and their citizens are paying the price. Sooner or later, these countries will wonder if Zelensky is doing everything right, considering that their citizens have to pay for his whims.”

Some countries have already stopped issuing visas to Russians or have demanded that arriving Russians sign statements opposing President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Latvia last week announced that it was indefinitely halting the issuance of visas to Russians and requiring Russian travelers entering the country with existing visas to sign statements opposing the war against Ukraine.

Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas called Tuesday for European countries to bar Russian tourists.

“Stop issuing tourist visas to Russians. Visiting #Europe is a privilege, not a human right,” she said in a tweet, adding: “Time to end tourism from Russia now.” Kallas said countries bordering Russia are bearing the brunt of Russian visa applications, with Russians traveling by land to those countries before flying on to other destinations because the European Union closed its airspace to Russian aircraft after the invasion of Ukraine.

Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin said Monday that Russian tourists should not be able to travel to Europe for vacations. She said she expects the issue to be discussed by leaders of E.U. nations later this month.

“It’s not right that at the same time as Russia is waging an aggressive, brutal war of aggression in Europe, Russians can live a normal life, travel in Europe, be tourists. It’s not right,” she told Finnish national public broadcaster Yle.

According to Finland’s Foreign Ministry, many Russians use the country as a transit point to travel to other destinations, with Russian border crossings increasing by as much as 30 percent since last month, when coronavirus travel restrictions between the two countries were lifted.

In southern Ukraine, meanwhile, Russian proxies appointed to run occupied regions continue to push ahead with plans for referendums as early as next month on becoming part of Russia.

Russia’s appointees have said they could hold annexation votes next month in the occupied parts of Ukraine’s east and south — in the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions — in an effort to legitimize Russian occupation of the areas. The plans are a reprise of Russia’s playbook in 2014, when referendums were held in Crimea and two self-proclaimed separatist “republics” in eastern Ukraine. The votes did not win international acceptance, but Russia used them to cement its grip on the regions, subsequently annexing Crimea and, just before the Feb. 24 invasion, recognizing the two pro-Moscow republics as independent.

The Kremlin’s main dilemma in pushing ahead with referendums, according to analysts, is that they would lack legitimacy in the case of clear election fraud and intimidation. And Putin is viewed as unlikely to be happy with less than about 90 percent of voters approving annexation by Russia.

But the Russian state-owned Tass news agency reported Monday that voting in Zaporizhzhia could be held online, fueling further alarm that the vote could be manipulated. Russia used online voting in 2021 elections, a system that opposition candidates condemned, saying it was used to falsify the results and defeat opposition members.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and senior White House officials have warned that any attempted land grab through “sham” referendums would bring “additional costs imposed upon Russia.”

In addition to its referendum plans, Moscow is taking other measures to incorporate occupied Ukrainian regions into Russia, with top officials visiting frequently. Among them is Sergei Kiriyenko, first deputy head of the presidential administration, who is driving the integration effort.

Moscow also is sending hundreds of Russian schoolteachers to Ukraine to implement Russia’s education curriculum, including its take on Ukrainian history. It is broadcasting Russian state propaganda about its “denazification” of the country and is issuing Russian passports to Ukrainian citizens.

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russia fired at least 85 missiles on at least six major cities in Ukraine on November 15, in one of the most widespread attacks of the war so far. The strikes came just hours after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, speaking by video link, presented a 10-point peace plan to G-20 leaders at a summit in Indonesia. As in previous Russian missile attacks, critical civilian infrastructure appeared to be primary targets. Parts of several cities that were hit were left without electrical power on Tuesday afternoon.

Russia’s Gamble: The Post examined the road to war in Ukraine, and Western efforts to unite to thwart the Kremlin’s plans, through extensive interviews with more than three dozen senior U.S., Ukrainian, European and NATO officials.

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