Wednesday 26 March 2014 7:22 am

Why open borders should be the West's peaceful response to Russian aggression

Western nations have responded to Russia's annexation of Crimea with moral condemnation and a series of sanctions against individuals with close ties to the Kremlin.

On 21 March, the EU extended visa restrictions to a further 12 individuals. Later today Barack Obama will meet with EU leaders to discuss a response to Russia's actions, after branding the Kremlin's move as a "sign of weakness."

Both the EU and the US have struggled to give birth to a coherent policy that would negatively impact Russia's ruling elite without resorting to violent confrontation or damaging still fragile western economies.

However, one proposal being touted represents a sharp change of direction from current policy making, from narrow visa restrictions to wide-ranging visa-free travel.

Executive vice president for international programs at the Atlas Network, Tom Palmer, told the European Students for Liberty Conference in Berlin that a policy of visa-free travel for ordinary Russian and Ukrainian citizens could do far more to foster peace and cooperation and undermine the nationalist rhetoric of the Kremlin than visa-restrictions ever could.

Palmer expanded on his remarks, telling City A.M.:

On 11 February of this year Viktor Zubkov, chairman of Gazprom, liquidated 100 per cent of his Gazprom holdings. Generally, the “Siloviki” who dominate Russia did the same. The sanctions will have little impact on those with power and will mainly harm people who don’t have power. The history of sanctions is a long history of failure. Another approach is to offer to both Ukrainians and Russians visa-free travel to the European Union and the United States.

Allow them to come to freer societies and see what it’s like not to be afraid of the arbitrary power of the authorities. In contrast, not allowing easier travel for regular citizens will be perceived as collective punishment and would merely exacerbate nationalistic feelings and thus an “us vs. them” mentality that would strengthen the Kremlin’s hold.

Many agree with Palmer's analysis that sanctions have a strong possibility of backfiring, strengthening support for the Putin regime by whipping up nationalist sentiments. 

Young Voices advocate Maria Semykoz highlighted the difficulty facing Western leaders: "The trick is to send a clear negative message towards the regime of Putin, while showing a good will to Russian people."

Visa-free travel for Russian citizens could provide the west with a positive response to the crisis in Ukraine without harming the economic prospects of ordinary citizens.

"On top of that, with time, the more contact Russians have with people living in Western countries, the more likely they would be embrace the views conducive to human rights, individual freedoms, limited government and non-aggression," says Semykoz.

Even without the various sanctions placed on a few individuals Russia has been far from immune from the consequences of Putin's actions. Russian firms in London including firms with no link to Putin's inner circle, have seen their share prices tank and borrowing costs rise.

Business confidence, which was already fragile, is now in shock. A Gaidar Institute “express survey” earlier this month found 46 per cent of industrial respondents saying they expected output to fall because of the events in Ukraine; 50 per cent considered those events unlikely to affect their business either way; four per cent expected to benefit.

The Russian economy was not in the best of health prior to the annexation of Crimea, with GDP only rising 1.3 per cent last year, and falling investment and net exports. Policies of visa liberalisation amidst high tensions are not an untested or risky prospect.

Journalist and municipal deputy in Moscow’s Yuzhnoye Tushino district, Vera Kichanova, told City A.M.:

Georgian policy towards Putin is a good example, I think. The Georgian government abolished visas for Russian tourists in spite of the tough relations between the two countries. Lots of Russians had an opportunity to see with their own eyes what was really happening in Georgia and how the market-oriented anti-corruption reforms affected the society.