An expert's point of view on a current event.

Washington Just Punished Russia — and Helped Putin

The Trump administration just made it harder for Russians to enter the United States ... and gave the Kremlin an easy win.


The announcement this week that U.S. diplomatic missions in Russia will limit issuance of nonimmigrant visas to Russian citizens was an understandable response to the Russian government’s decision to cut their staff in the country by more than half. It was also precisely the wrong move, representative of the sort of self-defeating myopia that has defined America’s Russia policy since the start of Cold War 2.0. Let’s be clear: The Kremlin actually benefits when travel to America is difficult for Russians; conversely, the United States gains through more open contact.

First of all, by making the announcement on visas so publicly and with so much fanfare — presumably in an attempt to shame Moscow — Washington has handed the Kremlin a useful propaganda win.

The new limits on visas are inconvenient but not absolute: The three consulates in St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, and Vladivostok will no longer be issuing visas, but screening interviews will still take place in Moscow after a short break. Waiting times are likely to be longer but not insurmountable.

However, this kind of nuance has not featured in domestic Russian media coverage of the announcement. Instead, this is already being spun as a blow against ordinary Russians, a message that America doesn’t like Russians and doesn’t want them visiting its shores. The usual rent-a-mob protest was arranged outside the U.S. Embassy on Tuesday, at which clearly professionally painted cars with Russian tricolors also bore the rather quaint slogan “we treat sanctions with contempt.” (It sounds a little better in Russian but not much.)

Meanwhile, wholly invented tales of massive lines outside the embassy in Moscow made the rounds on both social media and regular news outlets; the RIA Novosti news agency even recycled a photo of a vigil for Linkin Park frontman Chester Bennington, which it claimed depicted crowds waiting hours for visas. For a government that seems increasingly to derive its legitimacy by telling Russians how much the rest of the world belittles and assails them, a chance to deploy this sort of spin was handy indeed.

But propaganda aside, placing any additional restrictions on Russians who wish to visit the United States is a mistake. By doing so, America is voluntarily giving up one of the best tools it has in its ongoing standoff with Moscow.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claimed that the visa restrictions were an “attempt to stir up discontent among Russian citizens about the actions of the Russian authorities.” Lavrov’s intention was to portray Washington’s actions as an attack on the Russian state — but in doing so, he seemed to acknowledge that Russians are desperate for visas to travel to the United States. And on this last point he probably isn’t wrong. Whatever the geopolitical rivalries, and the state of the bizarre relationship between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, Russians do enjoy visiting America. The number of Russians visiting the United States peaked at 343,000 in 2014, before the current crisis, declining to 253,000 last year — but that likely was as much a consequence of the fall in real incomes in Russia as any political backlash. Indeed, Russians actually tend to like Americans, even while they regard the United States as a geopolitical rival. According to the latest Pew Research Center polls, they have a higher opinion of the United States than do the Dutch, Spanish, and Germans.

So why isn’t Washington exploiting this soft-power advantage, rather than throwing it away in a fit of pique or, if Lavrov has it right, a moonshot attempt to weaken the Russian regime? Rather than succumbing to the temptation to fight Russian disinformation with propaganda of our own, let us show, not tell. The more Russians travel to the West, the less dependent on Putin’s propaganda they are to tell them what it’s like. It doesn’t necessarily make them committed to Western values — but it does make the crass caricatures peddled on Russian television less plausible and more laughable.

From my own experience teaching well-traveled Russian graduate students at MGIMO, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s own university, those experiences matter. These students, in the main, are still patriotic Russians, and I have no doubt that those who enter foreign service will fiercely champion the Kremlin’s line. But the point is that they know. They know the difference between the official spin and the reality; they know that Europe is not a battlefield where hordes of Muslim migrants ravage at will; that the United States is not in the grip of a no-holds-barred race war; and all the rest of the often-bizarre nonsense that is the stock in trade of the domestic propaganda machine. If anything, we should be making it easier for Russians to travel, study, and trade in the West, especially those with a degree of flexibility of thought and interest.

Yet according to the Association of Tour Operators of Russia, those hardest-hit by the new visa limits will not be the rich (who, in any case, largely live in or near Moscow) — nor package tour groups, whose paperwork is handled by agencies — but precisely the independent travelers eager to see the United States for themselves and to study and work there. Students, for example, were already finding themselves unable to attend planned courses because of delays, even before the latest restrictions.

These very Russians can most effectively neuter the Kremlin’s propaganda about the big, bad USA — one of late Putinism’s basic sources of legitimacy — by not believing it in the first place. It is an own goal of scandalous proportions for America to turn them away.

And if this still sounds too touchy-feely for you, consider a more hard-nosed argument. Russia remains something of a human intelligence hard target for Western intelligence agencies because the scale of Russian security activity and the constraints on diplomatic travel make it difficult to recruit sources. Russians visiting and studying in the West — especially the more affluent middle class and the smart young students — are a great target population to contact and perhaps even recruit. They may not rise to be the very top of the system — that is likely to be colonized by the sons and daughters of today’s elite — but sometimes it is just as useful to recruit the VIP’s personal assistant, research assistant, or understudy. The Russians know this and keep close tabs on their compatriots who visit the West. But here again, the more of them who come, the harder it is for Moscow to monitor them all.

So what has the United States achieved with this decision? Let’s be honest: The Russians we really need to worry about — the oligarchs, the spies, the fixers, the mobsters — can get themselves to America anyway. It’s the rest who ought to be encouraged and cultivated; this week, the Trump administration did the exact opposite.

The United States has decided that the answer to Putin’s aggression should be the enforced “North Koreanization” of Russia. But what if the better response is to befriend this system to death?

Image credit: MAX VETROV/AFP/Getty Images

Mark Galeotti is a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London and an honorary professor at UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies. His recent books include We Need To Talk About Putin and the forthcoming A Short History of Russia. Twitter: @MarkGaleotti