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Ukraine’s Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal slammed the EU’s efforts to stop Russian citizens from visiting Europe in a recent interview with POLITICO — and now he’s bringing his arguments to Berlin and Brussels.
Ahead of a visit to both the German and EU capitals for meetings, Shmyhal was blunt about what he wants.
“Visas have to be stopped or suspended for the time being while Russia is waging a terrorist war,” he told POLITICO.
The prime minister is scheduled to first meet on Sunday with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who has opposed a full Russian visa ban, before moving to Brussels on Monday to attend the EU-Ukraine Association Council, a group that occasionally gathers to review the bloc’s relationship with the aspiring member.
Shmyhal dismissed the EU’s tentative first step on Russian visas this past week, when foreign ministers agreed to suspend a 2007 visa facilitation agreement with Russia — a step that will make the visa process more onerous and costly, but not eliminate it altogether.
“This is not enough,” he said. “We believe that not only should the so-called visa application not be in place, but tougher sanctions should be taken, vis-à-vis tourists and students.”
The debate about banning Russian travelers from entering the EU’s free-travel area has divided member countries for weeks, with Baltic and eastern European countries advocating a complete halt of all Russian visitors. But others, led by France and Germany, have opposed such a move, arguing that ordinary Russians shouldn’t be punished for Putin’s war in Ukraine.
Shmyhal’s remarks are just the latest sign that the contentious issue is unlikely to go away.
The actual process of translating the recent decision to suspend the 2007 agreement will likely take some weeks. The EU must first make the decision official — the foreign ministers’ gathering was an informal meeting — and the European Commission will publish guidelines clarifying who may be excluded.
The EU has also not ruled out taking further measures and foreign ministers have already opened the door to individual countries — or groups of countries — taking their own steps to limit visas. Several of the Baltic and eastern European countries are expected to explore such options.
Notably, the recent decisions will not affect visas that are already in existence, though a European Commission spokesperson refuted claims that there are already roughly 12 million visas allowing multiple entries for Russians into the EU, saying the figure is less than one million.
“As of September 1, the number of valid visas held by Russian citizens is 963,189,” said European Commission Home Affairs spokesperson Anitta Hipper.
Those in favor of a tougher stance on Russia insist last week’s political decision is only the first step in the process.
“This is only the starting point,” said one EU official. “We are looking at more ways to clamp down on travel from Russia, and of course, individual countries can bring in their own measures.”
Shmyhal said he will raise the issue with EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell at Monday’s meeting in Brussels.
“Visas have to be stopped or suspended,” Shmyhal said. “Instead of tourists or students going to Europe to enjoy life or to study, they ought to remain within their country and tell their neighbors, their relatives, their circle the way Europe really sees Russia. This should be like a cold shower on the whole of Russian society — to allow them to understand the consequences of what they are doing in Ukraine.”
Asked if ordinary Russians and students should be punished for Putin’s war in Ukraine — Germany and France have warned against losing the “hearts and minds” of everyday Russians — Shmyhal pointed out that 85 percent of Russian people support Putin and the war.
“People need to know that by supporting Putin and his aggression … they have to pay for this support,” he said.
Shmyhal is also planning to request more heavy weaponry from European allies as the Ukrainian army pushes ahead with a counteroffensive in Kherson — a critical attempt to take back Russian-held territory ahead of the winter.
The Ukrainian prime minister told POLITICO Russia is now using Soviet-era equipment and missiles as their stock of more advanced weaponry depletes. But, he added, these weapons are less precise and hit more civilian targets, necessitating certain weapons for Ukraine that the West can provide.
“We need more anti-missile, anti-air, anti-land operations, we need more drones … to fight and hit these missiles that the Russians are using now,” he said. “We need more specific, more tailored equipment to protect our civilians. We need cutting-edge air defenses to fight off any potential air attacks.”
After a slow start, Germany has been providing Ukraine with weapons, including anti-aircraft tanks, howitzers and anti-aircraft systems. But this past week, German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht warned that Germany is now “at the limits” of what it can give Ukraine because its own stocks are depleted. The issue is likely to feature heavily in Sunday’s meeting between Scholz and the Ukrainian prime minister.
Shmyhal acknowledged the challenges facing European countries regarding their own stock.
“We are communicating these needs to the European Commission and individual countries,” he said. “We do understand that these are very sophisticated technological supplies, and we do understand that perhaps there are not enough volumes or amounts. But we would like to ask [them] to give us what is possible and [to] accelerate deliveries.”
Shmyhal was tight-lipped on the progress being made by the Ukrainians in Kherson, amid an almost total Ukrainian news blackout. But he said: “We have stopped the Russian offensive, the situation at the front line is stable, and they do not have any further advances,” reiterating the need for modern weaponry and armor.
He also called on the EU to go further when it comes to sanctions against Russia, imploring capitals to target oil and gas.
“The tightening of sanctions against Russia is of no less importance than the assistance in terms of supply of weaponry and armaments,” he said. “Sanctions ought to be tightened.”
“We would like to press for a total and complete oil and gas embargo on Russia,” he continued. “We do understand that many economies in the EU do depend on Russian energy sources. We understand that these are tough decisions, but we also understand that by embargoing oil and gas in Russia, we would assist the Russian budget to shrink, and give them less opportunity to finance their terrorist activities and genocidal war against Ukraine.”
Monday’s EU-Ukraine meeting will also be the first since EU leaders granted Ukraine EU candidate status at the June European council. But with Kyiv facing demands for reforms, any prospect of Ukraine joining the bloc is still far away.