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Europe Isn’t Bringing the Iron Curtain Down Again

Claims of an East-West split inside the continent are unhelpful.

By , a research fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, and , a research fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations.
Visitors at a former Finnish fortress
Visitors at a former Finnish fortress
Visitors walk among cannons at the former Suomenlinna island fortress in Helsinki on May 26. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Along with Estonia, Finland has been in the vanguard of calls for a European Union visa ban on Russian tourists. As well as gaining strong support in several EU states, the proposed ban has also attracted fierce criticism, including accusations that it would amount to a “new Iron Curtain.”

Such accusations are ill-founded and unfair. While there are legitimate arguments against a visa ban, describing it as a Cold War idea dismisses the real problems these countries are facing today—and the history of their relationships with Russia.

The debate in Finland is a good example of the practical as well as symbolic reasoning behind the ban—and the likelihood that this debate will not go away anytime soon. Despite suspending a previous visa facilitation agreement with Russia (that actually made it easier for Russians to get Schengen Area visas) EU foreign ministers stopped short of imposing a full ban at a meeting in Prague.

Along with Estonia, Finland has been in the vanguard of calls for a European Union visa ban on Russian tourists. As well as gaining strong support in several EU states, the proposed ban has also attracted fierce criticism, including accusations that it would amount to a “new Iron Curtain.”

Such accusations are ill-founded and unfair. While there are legitimate arguments against a visa ban, describing it as a Cold War idea dismisses the real problems these countries are facing today—and the history of their relationships with Russia.

The debate in Finland is a good example of the practical as well as symbolic reasoning behind the ban—and the likelihood that this debate will not go away anytime soon. Despite suspending a previous visa facilitation agreement with Russia (that actually made it easier for Russians to get Schengen Area visas) EU foreign ministers stopped short of imposing a full ban at a meeting in Prague.

Finland was part of the Russian Empire, and it was invaded by the Soviets in 1939, but it was never actually subject to Soviet rule—only “Finlandization,” a forced neutrality imposed by a powerful neighbor during the Cold War. Finns have traditionally had a somewhat different attitude toward Russians from that of their Baltic neighbors, who were forcibly annexed by the Soviet Union after two decades of independence from Russia. In Finland, there used to be a widespread tendency to make a distinction between Vladimir Putin’s regime and ordinary Russians. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine this year has caused a profound change of attitude.

On July 15, just in time for the summer travel season, Russia lifted the COVID-19 travel restrictions that had halted crossings at the Finnish-Russian border during the pandemic.

By the end of July, the numbers of Russians crossing the border had risen to around 6,000 per day, with the majority en route to vacation destinations elsewhere in Europe. Helsinki-Vantaa and Lappeenranta airports are easy to reach from St. Petersburg by private car, bus, or booming luxury chauffeur and car-hailing services. Taking a flight from Finland is much more convenient than the alternative route through Turkey—and this route has also been used by dissidents seeking the quickest escape from the Putin regime.

The reopening of the border sparked a strong reaction in Finland. Now, a majority of Finns support a ban on tourist visas for Russians and feel that ordinary Russians being able to vacation in Europe while Russian soldiers kill Ukrainians is simply wrong. That produced the call for tourist visa restrictions and other measures to stem the flow of tourists, while leaving other channels of movement open.

Before the pandemic, in 2019, Finland issued almost 800,000 visas to Russian citizens, around 3,500 per working day. This year, application appointments for short-term visas to the Schengen Area, a bloc of 26 European countries without border controls among them, had already been limited to 1,000 daily and were further curtailed to a mere 100 from September. Finland will instead prioritize other forms of mobility for those with family ties, work, or student visas. The roughly 100,000 Russians with long-term multiple entry permits will still be able to enter, as will those holding Schengen visas from other states—unless further action is taken to compensate for lack of an EU-level ban.

Finland is juggling many sometimes conflicting responsibilities with its long border to Russia. The first and foremost responsibility of the Finnish government is national security, which large inflows of travelers could compromise. One reason for this is that Russia conducts covert influence operations against EU states, which, as Estonian expert Kristi Raik has noted, it also uses tourist travel to infiltrate. Finland has a population of 5.5 million and lacks the capacity to conduct U.S.-style stringent border controls of each individual holding a visa.

The Finnish-Russian border is also one edge of the EU and the Schengen zone, which brings further responsibility for common security, but also humanitarian obligations toward potential asylum-seekers. The border will soon also be one of NATO’s borders, which a newly acceded Finland is expected to help secure. Finally, the burden of implementation of EU sanctions falls significantly on Finland as one of the main transit hubs for Russian tourists. Increased Finnish customs controls have revealed frequent attempts at sanctions busting by tourists returning to Russia on dual-use and luxury goods.

As Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto emphasized recently, Finland also doesn’t want to become a transit country for tourists trying to beat the flight ban to head elsewhere in the EU. In the last week of July, approximately 21,500 Russian citizens crossed the Finnish border. Of them, approximately one-third had a visa issued in Finland. This is another reason Finland has called for a common EU solution on restricting Russian tourism.

The recent decision by Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland to stop the entry of Russian tourists even if they hold valid visas will further exacerbate the situation at the Finnish border. As confirmed in Prague, they are well within their rights to do this under the Schengen Borders Code’s Article 6.1(e), which allows for this step if travelers are considered to pose a threat to the “national security” or “international relations” of any member state. While the aforementioned states see it this way, Finland does not—for now—and opted out of taking this step, which means yet more tourists will head that way.

More generally, however, Finnish leaders have concluded that strong deterrence of Russia outweighs the good neighborly relations they formerly prioritized and dovetails with resolute support for Ukraine. The decision to start limiting the number of issued visas is part of a wider reconfiguration of Finland’s approach toward Russia, including its pursuit of NATO membership. After two decades of trying to positively engage Russia, which proved futile, this is a necessary break from the past.

For the other countries leading calls for a visa ban, this step is a continuation of a tougher line against a Russian threat. Estonians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Poles, and Czechs understand all too well what subjugation by a repressive regime in Moscow means—and what it feels like to be behind an Iron Curtain. Neither their support for Ukraine nor their advocacy for the visa ban is taken lightly.

It would be tempting to observe that, like those who long dismissed calls for a tougher stance against Moscow as Russophobia, opponents of the visa ban who compare it to the Iron Curtain tend to hail from Western Europe—or from Russia. But it would reinforce a misguided and dangerous logic.

The Iron Curtain may have been drawn by the Soviets from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic (in the British leader Winston Churchill’s words), but it didn’t separate the West from the USSR. Rather, it divided what quickly became known by the inadequate shorthand of “Eastern” and “Western” Europe. The point was and is clear: division and difference, with circumstance supposedly dictating mindset.

This flames of this past division flared up again in response to French President Emmanuel Macron’s speech to his ambassadors earlier this month in which he seemingly referred to “Eastern countries” as the “most warmongering,” or “most warlike” in the official translation. This lazy line ignored the similar stances taken by, for example, Northern, Central and Western European states such as Finland, Estonia, Denmark, the Czech Republic, and the United Kingdom. It also overlooked Hungary’s more accommodating attitude toward Russia and, with tensions already running high, instead stoked another divisive row that overshadowed other more conciliatory aspects of his speech.

Using the Iron Curtain metaphor or relying on antediluvian definitions of East and West now only risks reviving their divisive logics in the present. At a time when unity of resolve and purpose is urgently needed against Russia and for Ukraine, facile historical and geographical determinism and supposed divisions between Russophobic Easterners and delusional Westerners doesn’t help anyone except the Kremlin.

History matters, but it isn’t determinative. It has been encouraging to see the support for the visa ban from states such as Denmark and the Netherlands, which understand their partners at the sharp end of this issue, as well as its importance for Ukraine. Less so has been Hungary’s attitude toward the Putin regime. German ministers’ insistence that certain Western-produced military equipment cannot be delivered to Ukraine, while that produced in the East can, remains as inexplicable as it is unhelpful.

All this shows that Europeans should debate the visa ban, weapons deliveries, and other responses to Russia’s war on their real (practical and symbolic) merits and dispense with the outdated and divisive metaphors that weaken a common stance against Russia’s revanchism. As the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre put it:

“The Iron Curtain is only a mirror, where each half of the world reflects the other. Each turn of the screw here corresponds to a twist there, and both here and there, to finish, we are all both the screwers and the screwed.”

Minna Ålander is a research fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. Her research topics include German foreign and security policy and security in the Nordic region.

Benjamin Tallis is a research fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations where he runs a project on Germany’s security transformation. He has worked on European Union border and visa issues in relation to foreign and security policy for nearly two decades.

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