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UPDATE 5-EU complicates travel rules for Russians but baulks at visa ban

·3 min read

(Adds Russia's comments)

By Robert Muller and Jan Lopatka

PRAGUE, Aug 31 (Reuters) - EU foreign ministers on Wednesday decided to make it more expensive and lengthier for Russians to obtain visas to travel to the bloc but stopped short of agreeing to the EU-wide visa ban that Ukraine and several member states had called for.

The EU was too divided to agree at this stage on a blanket ban, and also left unclear what unilateral measures Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Finland, which have land borders with Russia, could take to restrict access to Russian visitors.

These five countries welcomed the suspension of Russia's visa facilitation deal as a step in the right direction but four of them stressed that more needed to be done to "drastically" limit the numbers of visas issued and Russians travelling to the bloc since Moscow's invasion of Ukraine in February.

"Until such measures are in place on the EU level, we ... will consider introducing on the national level temporary measures of visa ban, or restricting border crossing for Russian citizens holding EU visas, in order to address imminent public security issues," Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Poland said in a joint statement.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko said Moscow would not let the move stand "without consequences," according to RIA news agencies.

"If Brussels decides to shoot themselves in the foot once again, this is their choice," he said.

Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavsky said the EU's executive Commission would indeed look at ways to go further, including what can be done with what Lipavsky said were about 12 million Schengen visas already issued for Russians - referring to the 26-country zone of open borders.

The EU's foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, argued that the suspension of the visa facilitation deal will by itself already have a real impact.

"This will significantly reduce the number of new visas issued by the EU member states. It's going to be more difficult, it's going to take longer," he told a news conference at the end of a two-day meeting of EU foreign ministers in Prague.

Borrell said a substantial increase in border crossings from Russia into neighbouring states since mid-July had made it necessary to suspend the visa facilitation agreement.

"SECURITY RISK"

"This has become a security risk for these neighbouring states," he added. "In addition to that, we have seen many Russians travelling for leisure and shopping as if no war was raging in Ukraine."

More than 1 million Russian citizens have entered the bloc through land border crossing points since the beginning of the Ukraine invasion, most of them via Finland and Estonia, the bloc's border agency Frontex said.

Ukraine has repeatedly said that ordinary Russians must also pay for the invasion, which has killed thousands of civilians, according to the United Nations, and levelled cities.

Ukraine's foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, earlier on Wednesday repeated calls for an EU visa ban, saying it would be "an appropriate response to Russia's genocidal war of aggression in the heart of Europe supported by an overwhelming majority of Russian citizens."

But France and Germany disagreed.

"We caution against far-reaching restrictions on our visa policy, in order to prevent feeding the Russian narrative and triggering unintended rallying-around the flag effects and/or estranging future generations," they said in a joint memo.

(Additional reporting by Sabine Siebold, Jason Hovet, Bart Meijer and Gabriela Baczynska; Writing by Ingrid Melander; Editing by John Chalmers, Nick Macfie and Mark Porter)