If you’re a citizen of the Russian Federation and want to jaunt off anywhere across the globe, it’s common knowledge that many popular and regularly visited places you choose as your destination will require you to obtain a visa. Annoying, time-consuming, and on a broader state level, a political game of chess. It’s a way to irritate the folks over at The Kremlin and to tell Vladimir Putin that he’s not so welcome in their backyard, and if he really wants his citizenry to travel there, they have to shoulder this bit of extra burden. This is especially true of European countries that have close ties to the US and are members of NATO; the relationship between these parties and Russia having grown even frostier with the annexation of Crimea and Russia’s actions inside Ukraine as a whole.
So what better way to stick a thumb in the eye of the United States, NATO members and others, while at the same time exercising a projection of Russian power on a global scale? Slap these countries with visa requirements of their own and one-up them by making the process as onerous as possible, requiring sponsorship from an organization inside the Russian Federation, strict limits on the days one can remain traveling, and also adding transit visas to the mix to make it even more burdensome. Even meeting this exceedingly strict series of measures will not guarantee an automatic approval and more often than not, those applying are denied and must start the process all over again, meaning more money, time, and resources wasted.
Now, to add an additional layer of sticking it to the list of states that aren’t in Putin’s favor comes this other form of projection of Russian soft-power across the globe: Grant large swaths of countries in Latin America – who traditionally haven’t been Uncle Sam’s best friend in the past – visa free status if their citizens choose to visit Russia. Not surprisingly, included in this list are places like Venezuela, Cuba, Brazil, Argentina and Nicaragua, all of which have had strained relations with past US Presidents and others, like Venezuela enjoy less than warm ties with the current administration.
Flipping the bird to the US in its own backyard and treading all over the Monroe Doctrine in this indirect, yet pretty direct manner is classic Russian intrigue coupled with Cold War era tactical maneuvering.
Following the splintering of the USSR back in 1991, Russia wasted no time in crafting together a bulwark to NATO in its own backyard with the creation of the CIS, or Commonwealth of Independent States. This association is comprised of countries that were once part of the Soviet Union; I like to think of this group as a “mini Warsaw Pact”. These countries also enjoy visa free entry into the Russian Federation and this along with the very existence of the CIS further serves to poke a stick in NATO’s direction.
From experience, this author has seen first-hand just how exhausting it can be to enter Russia if you don’t enjoy the benefit of being a citizen of any of the aforementioned countries. While on a trip throughout Scandinavia back in the summer of 2012, I entered Russia by way of Finland, utilizing my Nicaraguan passport in order to avoid the migraine that obtaining an entry visa would have entailed; and even then, things did not go smoothly. If you’ve ever seen a movie featuring a gulag, or Siberia full of pine trees, with the occasional outpost filled with barbed wire fence and Russian security forces walking around with attack dogs, then you’re picturing the VERY remote border crossing between Finland and Russia that I encountered. The hour spent there seemed like the very definition of eternity, with confused and clearly untrained officials looking at my passport every which way while sounding out “N-i-c-a-r-a-g-u-aaaaaaaaa?” in a mix of bemusement and disbelief. To play devil’s advocate, I’m sure that these Russians stationed in the most remote of outposts had probably never heard or even known the existence of a Central American country located thousands of miles away. After being peppered with endless questions about why I wanted to enter Russia, what my business and purpose(s) for doing so were – all while having uniformed KGB-like officers with trained attack dogs at their side looming over me – I was coldly told “Da”, “Yes”, and allowed to enter.
Talk about a first impression entering the Russian Federation, and this while holding a passport of a place where both countries enjoy very warm relations. Had I dared use my US passport, I’d be spending my remaining days in some even more remote part of Siberia.
So this is the soft-power that Vladimir Putin is employing to flex his muscle and push back, in the European continent, Latin America, and the US. Spreading anti-US propaganda abroad and showcasing Russian military hard-power are just several pieces of a bigger puzzle. The other is to very strategically use something as innocuous as an entry visa to further these ends of more subtle projections of soft-power globally and for Putin to continually irritate and provoke his foes, however possible.
It’s clear that Putin’s years in East Germany as a KGB officer certainly seem to have served him well. The chess game between the East and West continues.