MOSCOW: Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania closed their borders on Monday to most Russian citizens in response to the wide domestic support in Russia for the war in Ukraine.
Under the coordinated travel ban, Russians wishing to travel to the Baltic countries and to Poland as tourists or for business, sports or cultural purposes will not be allowed in even if they hold valid visas for the European Union's checks-free Schengen Area.
The prime ministers of the three Baltic nations and of Poland agreed earlier this month to stop admitting Russian citizens, saying the move would protect the security of the European Union member countries neighbouring Russia.
“Russia is an unpredictable and aggressive state. Three-quarters of its citizens support the war. It is unacceptable that people who support the war can freely travel around the world, into Lithuania, the EU,'' Lithuanian Interior Minister Agne Bilotaite said Monday.
“Such support for hostilities can pose threats to the security of our country and the EU as a whole,” she added.
The ban includes exceptions for humanitarian reasons, family members of EU citizens, Russian dissidents, serving diplomats, transportation employees and Russians with residence permits or long-stay national visas from the 26 Schengen countries.
There were no indications of new travel restrictions on Monday for Russians seeking to enter Poland, even though the country agreed with the Baltic countries to introduce the ban by September 19.
Poland, which borders Russia's Kaliningrad exclave, still has tight restrictions on Russian travelers remaining in place from the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the eastern Polish city of Bialystok, a member of the Russian Culture and Education Association in Poland said a new ban would have hit much harder if the pandemic restrictions had not already largely limited travel and exchange contacts with Russia.
“After more than two years of restrictions, we see no prospects for an improvement, and that is the worst part,” Andrzej Romanczuk, a Polish citizen, told The Associated Press.
The Lithuanian Interior Ministry said 11 Russian citizens were stopped from entering that country starting at midnight.
Most were trying to enter by land from Kaliningrad or from Belarus. No incidents were reported.
Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu said in an interview with the Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat last week that Russian travels posed security concerns because “we know that Russian spies have used fake IDs and carried out various activities in Europe using tourist visas.” He also cited allegations that Ukrainian refugees in Europe have been forced to serve rich Russians clients in spas and other establishments.
“I think this is a perverse situation,” Reinsalu said.
Estonia, a nation of some 1.3 million residents, has registered hundreds of thousands of border crossings by Russian citizens since the start of Russia's war on Ukraine.
The countries cannot, however, stop Russian citizens from entering via another Schengen nation.
They want similar measures to be taken by all 27 EU member states, but that has not been agreed so far, although some travel restrictions - on flights from Russia to the EU - have been already introduced. The new ban is chiefly about land travel.
The Czech Republic, which does not share a border with Russia, was one of the first EU countries to stop issuing visas to Russian citizens.
The government in Prague approved the measure the day after the February 24 invasion of Ukraine.
The three Baltic states were once Soviet Union republics, while Poland and Czechia - then part of Czechoslovakia - were Moscow's satellites. That and earlier history makes them especially sensitive to Moscow's aggressive policies.