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Calls grow to ban E.U. visas for Russians, but not all Ukrainians agree

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, left, and one of his top advisers, Oleksiy Arestovych, seem to disagree on banning ordinary Russians from traveling to Europe. (Laurent Van Der Stockt; Evgen Kotenko/Ukrinform/Future Publishing/Getty Images)

KYIV, Ukraine — As discussion of a possible ban on tourist visas for Russian nationals heats up in the European Union — a measure backed publicly in recent weeks by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky — not everyone is on board.

That includes some of Zelensky’s own advisers and European supporters.

Zelensky, in an exclusive interview with The Washington Post conducted in early August, said the way to stop Russia from annexing any more of Ukraine’s territory is for Western countries to announce that they would ban all Russian citizens in response.

Ukraine’s wartime leaders implied that ordinary Russians — even those living outside Russia — shared a collective responsibility for the war and the loss of Ukraine’s land. “Whichever kind of Russian … make them go to Russia,” Zelensky told The Post.

An interview with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky

That point of view — as well as other aspects of the wide-ranging interview — have proved controversial both inside and outside Ukraine, including among Zelensky’s allies.

Oleksiy Arestovych, a military adviser in Zelensky’s administration, said he did not agree with the idea of a blanket ban for all Russians and Belarusians.

“I’m still not a supporter of collective responsibility [but of] individual,” Arestovych told The Post. He said he would be “more selective” in choosing which applicants should not be granted visas, giving the example of those who openly support Russian President Vladimir Putin. “They would be banned [and have] other sanctions imposed on them,” he said.

Arestovych conceded that it would be “technically very difficult” to determine “whether someone supports or doesn’t support Putin” — and he suggested this might have pushed the Zelensky administration to decide it would be “easier to ban everyone,” although he said he was not part of those discussions.

He later sought to clarify his comments, saying that they were his personal view and that he officially supported the administration’s position because of security concerns for western countries.

Zelensky calls on West to ban all Russian travelers

Even as the war in Ukraine approaches its six-month mark, there is no blanket prohibition on travel for Russian nationals such as the one Zelensky is suggesting. Russian airlines have been banned from flying over most of Europe and North America, which has made it more challenging for Russians to travel abroad. But Russian citizens remain free to apply for a visa to visit the United States, for example.

Still, in recent days, some European countries have moved to impose restrictions on the issuance of visas to Russians.

Finland announced it would slash the number of available visa appointments in Russia, allocating just 100 appointments a day out of 500 for tourist visa applicants, according to Reuters. Authorities in Latvia are debating a measure to stop issuing temporary residence permits to Russians and Belarusians.

And Estonia said it would invalidate most previously issued visas for Russian nationals. Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas urged other European countries in a tweet to “stop issuing tourist visas to Russians.”

The Czech Republic, which holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, said it plans to invite a discussion on an E.U.-wide visa ban for Russian tourists at an informal meeting of European foreign ministers on Aug. 31. Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavsky has expressed support for a ban.

“We are convinced as a government that halting visas for ordinary Russian citizens gives a very clear and straightforward signal to the Russian society,” Lipavsky told Politico last week. “Citizens of these countries should realize that such a militant policy has consequences,” he added.

Zelensky celebrated the growing calls for a visa ban in his nightly address Sunday. “The discussion about visa restrictions in Europe for holders of Russian passports is expanding every day. New states and new politicians are joining it,” he said.

Road to war: U.S. struggled to convince allies, and Zelensky, of risk of invasion

As the ranks of those calling for a visa ban grow, not all countries are on board. On Monday, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz declined to back an E.U.-wide ban for Russian travelers. “This is not the war of the Russian people, but it is Putin’s war,” Scholz said in Oslo. He added that many Russians are fleeing their country “because they are disagreeing with the Russian regime.”

But Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, said Kyiv is not proposing a ban on “those few Russians who may need an asylum or humanitarian entry.”

Russia has itself moved to restrict the issuance of visas to travelers from countries deemed “unfriendly” by the government, including the United States and European nations.

A key sticking point in the debate has been the question of how wide-ranging a visa ban should be and how it could be enforced. Zelensky himself may have contributed to the confusion, by at times arguing that all Russian nationals — including those studying in Europe — should be sent home.

“Whatever the citizens of the Russian Federation may be — there are those who support and do not support it — their children are there, studying abroad, in schools, universities and so on. Let them go to Russia,” he told The Post.

He later acknowledged that any visa ban could not be universal. “There are people who really need protection, who are persecuted in Russia, may even be killed, and therefore they should receive help from the civilized world,” he said Friday, adding that mechanisms exist for them to receive asylum or refugee status. However, he argued, “the rest of Russian citizens in Europe, tourism, entertainment, business affairs” should be banned.

On Tuesday, Arestovych criticized Ukrainians who prefer to antagonize all Russians instead of bringing them over to Kyiv’s side.

“It’s easier to hate and deny everyone,” Arestovych wrote in a lengthy social media post. “These are tens and hundreds of thousands of [Russians and Belarusians] on the fence who could take our side — at least by internal disagreement — but now they will not.”

“You chose to hate and to fence off where you need to skillfully count and calculate, provoke, involve and create,” Arestovych wrote, speaking as if he were addressing all Ukrainians.

However, he told The Post that his statements were not connected to the proposals for a visa ban. Instead, he said, they were aimed at Ukrainians who wanted to create a “culture of cancellation” for Russians and Belarusians.

In response to the growing debate about a visa ban in Europe, applications from Russians for short-term Schengen visas — which generally allow the bearer to travel freely within the 26 countries of the Schengen Area — have jumped in recent weeks, the Moscow Times reported, citing local travel agents.

Timsit reported from France and Khurshudyan from Tbilisi, Georgia. Mary Ilyushina in Riga, Latvia, contributed to this report.

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