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Travel barriers are the worst of new Cold War

Why is the US squandering its soft-power advantage on a tit-for-tat with Russia?

Leonid Bershidsky | Bloomberg 

Passport
Russia and the US are choking off the friendliest, most human channel of communication between them. (Photo: iSTOCK)

The latest loop in the escalation of hostilities is probably the dumbest and the most damaging: The two countries are introducing de facto travel restrictions for each other’s citizens, choking off the friendliest, most human channel of communication between them. It’s the biggest step back into the era that the two governments have taken yet.

The State Department has stopped issuing visas in Yekaterinburg, Vladivostok and St Petersburg, a response to Russian demands for drastic cuts in diplomatic mission based in the country. In 2016, those three posts combined issued 46,243 visas, about a third of the turnover of the embassy in Moscow, now the only visa-issuing office in The decision effectively ends all non-essential travel to the from the Russian hinterland, and even from St Petersburg, the country’s second city. Most travellers will end up picking a different destination rather than travel to Moscow for a consular interview.

As if that wasn’t enough of a retaliatory move, the has also ordered to close its San Francisco consulate. The Russian foreign ministry doesn’t break out its data in visa statistics, so it’s not clear how many of the 56,229 Russian tourist visas issued to Americans in 2015 originated there. But the closure of the office will mean an end to all non-essential travel to for people who live on the West Coast. 

I understand the logic of diplomatic tit-for-tat, and it doesn’t concern me who started this or whom to blame. One doesn’t need to take sides in the old academic argument over whether tourism is an instrument of peace or a beneficiary of peace. It’s just plain good sense to see that keeping casual travellers out of a country prevents people from forming an unmediated opinion of it. Stopping Russians who want to see the from doing it leaves them at the mercy of the propaganda machine, which will be happy to tell them its own stories of life in the Creating obstacles for Americans to travel to leaves them a choice between the increasingly anti-Russian mainstream press and the export version of the same propaganda.

In my travels around the during the 2016 election campaign, I have met people content with the mainstream narrative of a backward, morally bankrupt, hopelessly corrupt Russian society and the avid watchers of RT, the Russian government-funded TV channel who mistrusted that narrative and admired Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ideology and methods. I couldn’t convince either side that they’d feel quite differently if they ever visited my homeland.

I have also often met Russians who refused to believe my stories of American complexity. 

The mutual misunderstanding isn’t as bad yet as it was in the 1980s, when the weakened and the Iron Curtain opened a crack. The Americans I met then were usually shell-shocked by their experience of informal contacts with Russians. 

© Bloomberg

First Published: Sun, September 03 2017. 22:38 IST
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