Sealing off Russia: Will travel bans help?

Bohdan Petrenko
21:50, 13 October 2017
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Four years since the war started, the Ukrainian society has not yet figured out clearly how to deal with the whole Russia issue. The latest debate about trips to Russia by Ukrainian officials has further proved that no public consent has been reached yet.

This week, the authorities showcased two versions of a bill introducing such a ban. One of them contained proposals by the SBU security service, while another one, Bill No. 7187, was submitted by a group of MPs.

First, let’s talk about the content. The SBU draft stipulates criminal liability for "persons authorized to perform functions of the state and local governments visiting Russia in order to undermine the interests of Ukraine." This norm consists of three elements, all of which must be present for it to be applied: a government official, a visit to Russia, and damage to Ukraine’s interests. Honestly, two would be just enough. Any of them. Moreover, who would think that one could inflict damage to Ukraine’s interests only when visiting Russia?

Believing that territorial proximity facilitates subversion is some 19th century way of thinking.

But the main task is to prove that the purpose of the trip is to undermine the interests of Ukraine. Of all people charged with "state treason" in 2014, in the period of active hostilities when traitors were uncovered en masse among security officials, only one person was actually sentenced. In 2015, there were just two. Although this is more about the pressing problems with the "effectiveness" of Ukraine’s judicial system.

Another bill, submitted by MPs provides for a direct temporary ban on Russia visits by civil servants. It’s temporary, until Russia loses its status of an aggressor state.

Are there any shortcomings in the parliamentary bill? Not so much in the draft, but in its potential implementation. It provides for a system of exceptions - funeral of family members and urgent medical treatment. And when there is a system of exceptions, there will definitely be abuse. Especially as regards medical treatment – could the FSB be so lame not to be able to produce fake medical papers? Come on. You could get it at any district clinic. This is a big problem of the Ukrainian ad hoc system, the one where exceptions become the norm for the chosen ones.

After studying these bills, the question arises as to their ultimate goal. It is hardly a question of safeguarding the state from the treachery of politicians and officials. Could it be considered that a visit of an official to Belarus or Poland in order to undermine Ukraine’s interests is not as bad? Are Russian intelligence services so depleted in Ukraine that they are no longer able to give instructions to their agents from here? I will say more: believing that territorial proximity facilitates subversion is some 19th century way of thinking. In the modern world connected via internet, recruiting agents and giving them instructions can be done tens of thousands of kilometers away from the "object". And the system of terror organized by the Islamic State is a clear proof evidencing this fact.

Part of the population will still perceive Ukrainian policy regarding the restriction of "communication" with the aggressor as yet another insidious move by the "Junta".

The purpose of these projects is different: to prove yet again that Russia is an aggressor. For the very fact of the visit of a Ukrainian official to the aggressor state justifies Russia and reduces its guilt in military aggression. And how can we go on proving to the rest of the world that Russia is anything but a mediator, and the war is not a civil conflict if Ukrainian politicians feel free to travel across Russia?

Well, of course, there is another goal - to restrict the opportunity for the Ukrainian elite to check on their Russia-based property, as an incentive to quit investing in the economy of the aggressor state.

On the other hand, the debate on the issue Ukraine-Russia relations is not subsiding and is unlikely to do so after these bills have been introduced. We still have not answered our own question on what kind of relationship we actually have with Russia today. If it’s an aggressor state, then why do we still have diplomatic ties with Moscow? How come Ukrainian investments in Russia and vice versa increased in 2016 compared to 2015?

All of this shapes up half-hearted steps, and part of the population will still perceive Ukrainian policy regarding the restriction of "communication" with the aggressor as yet another insidious move by the "Junta".

Bohdan Petrenko is a Deputy Director of the Ukrainian Institute for Extremism Studies

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