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EU split over Russia visa ban, weighs Ukraine army training

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European Union nations were divided Tuesday over whether to slap a broad visa ban on Russian citizens, torn between a desire to ramp up pressure on President Vladimir Putin and concern about punishing people who may not even support his war on Ukraine.

The 27-nation EU already tightened visa restrictions on Russian officials and businesspeople in May, but calls have mounted from, notably, Poland and the Baltic countries — Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — for a broader ban on tourists.

“There must be more restrictions on travel for Russian citizens,” Latvian Defense Minister Artis Pabriks said.

“We cannot simply give bonuses to people which are supporting such presidents as Putin,” he told reporters in Czech capital Prague, where EU defense and foreign ministers are meeting.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, who is chairing the talks, has said that a visa ban on all Russian citizens is unlikely to be agreed on. Germany and France are leading a push to tighten visa restrictions, rather than impose an outright ban.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock expressed support for suspending more parts of the 2007 EU agreement with Russia, and to halt the issuing of multiple-entry or multi-year visas.

But Baerbock said it’s important “that we don’t deprive ourselves of what made it possible for us to allow persecuted people in Russia to leave very quickly.”

“We should not punish those who have the courage to stand up against this regime,” Baerbock said at a Cabinet gathering north of Berlin, from where she is due to travel to Prague on Wednesday.

Finland’s foreign minister, Pekka Haavisto, said his country is worried about a kind of Russian “tourist route” through Helsinki airport. He said Finland will unilaterally slash the granting of tourist visas to Russians to 10% of their usual number from Sept. 1.

As of Thursday, Finland, which has the longest border with Russia of all EU countries, will only allow Russian citizens to apply for tourist visas on one day a week, and only in four cities in Russia.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Tuesday that Moscow was closely following the EU visa discussions and described them as part of Western moves against Russia that are “irrational and bordering on madness.” He warned that Moscow will retaliate if Russian citizens are targeted.

In talks earlier Tuesday, EU defense ministers weighed the possibility of setting up a training mission for Ukraine’s beleaguered armed forces, but the bloc’s countries disagree over what added value such an effort might bring.

Ukraine has provided the EU with a list of short- and long-term requirements, ranging from basic military training and organizing resistance to high-level instruction on the use of equipment or defending against nuclear and chemical weapons.

Several countries already provide military training on a bilateral basis, but some feel that it’s important to throw the EU’s combined weight behind the effort. The Netherlands highlighted new demining training that it’s providing with Germany.

Others fear that an EU effort of 27 countries might be too unwieldy.

“It’s not maybe the quickest way. I’m not so convinced,” Luxembourg Defense Minister Francois Bausch said. Austria was also cool on the idea. Pabriks said that Latvia stands ready to help, but that such an EU-wide mission “must be practical.”

In the end, Borrell said, the ministers agreed “on launching the work necessary to define the parameters” of what such a mission might look like, meaning that little movement is likely at the EU level for some time.

The ministers also discussed ways of pooling military resources and material, and using their collective weight to jointly purchase defense equipment and help European industry “to ramp up production capacities,” Borrell said.

“We are depleting our stocks. We are providing so many capacities to Ukraine that we have to refill our stocks,” he said.

Slovak Defense Minister Jaroslav Nad sought help from EU partners to “backfill” his country’s national defense needs so that it can be free to send more military equipment to Ukraine, including Mig-29 fighter jets.

Source : Associated Press