A surgical strike on Russian passports could dampen enthusiasm for Putin’s ‘New World Order’

The collective West must close ranks to enforce a uniform travel ban and more stringent banking restrictions on Russia’s entire citizenry. Doing so will serve as a litmus test of whether civil society is truly sold on the hype surrounding ‘multipolarity’ and ‘de-dollarisation’.

Following the latest drip-feed of EU sanctions announced shortly before Christmas, Russia does not appear any less implacable nor did its indiscriminate aerial bombardment of Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure and urban centres subsidised over the Christmas and New Year period.

Convinced that cash-strapped Kyiv is on the cusp of blinking first given its lacklustre summer counteroffensive coupled with dire artillery shortages, Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to drive a hard bargain and rule out any face-saving off-ramp or peaceful resolution put forward by third-party interlocutors.

Meanwhile, European policymakers shut away in their ivory towers have all but contented themselves with a loophole-ridden economic crusade against Moscow and sweeping press releases. The sluggish, piecemeal manner in which round after round of half-baked “restrictive measures” are being administered affords Kremlin-affiliated surrogates and frontmen latitude to come up with stealthy workarounds for targeted sectors and state-owned entities to carry on generating income hand over fist.

Much like embargoed Russian crude is now being rerouted to oil-guzzling behemoths China and India, who collectively account for around 90 per cent of total consumption, the shortfall in budgetary revenue stemming from Brussels’ recent prohibition of diamond imports will invariably be offset by ramping up uncut and finished gemstone sales to “friendly” emerging market

An ego-driven agenda

At this stage, Putin’s agenda behind waging asymmetric warfare against Ukraine is wholly ego-driven and premised on glossing over how much of an unmitigated disaster the “special military operation” has been.

He has no qualms about throwing good money after bad to raise the stakes on the battlefield, regardless of the marked upsurge in single-parent households across Russia and the irreversible brain drain fuelled by his jingoistic hysteria.

The State Duma rubber-stamping a 70 per cent hike in defence expenditure for 2024 is a clear giveaway that its armed forces are playing for keeps and have no intention of deescalating the conflict anytime soon.

Domestically, this move risks being interpreted as a prelude to yet another mobilisation wave and hence, propelling a further exodus of fighting-age men. Not only can Russia ill-afford to haemorrhage more taxpayers and breadwinners, but their upper echelons are finding it increasingly untenable to keep the populace docile upon transitioning to a retrograde wartime economy.

The sheer volume of fallen soldiers returning home in bodybags does not bode well for the former KGB officer and renders a blood-soaked, Gaddafi-esque end to his “father of the nation” reign almost inevitable as bereaved families with nothing more to lose proliferate.

The desperation to flee Russia

Arguably, the biggest strategic miscalculation by transatlantic powers was that moving heaven and earth to seize the foreign assets of Russian oligarchs would get them to turn on their commander-in-chief and usher in new leadership.

Ex-Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin’s fall from grace and eventual demise last August will have surely led budding mutineers in high places to abandon any fantasy of ever staging a lone wolf coup. Rather than pinning its hopes on a cabal of corrupt, self-serving tycoons still at Putin’s mercy to bite the hand that feeds them, engineering a grassroots resistance movement is perhaps the free world’s best bet to decapitate the current regime.

Previous sanctions packages have left Russia’s working- and middle-class largely unscathed, not least since mobility remains a major blind spot of participating jurisdictions. The G7, along with other first-world democracies—namely Australia, New Zealand and South Korea—have stopped short of instituting a harmonised, Baltic-style entry ban for fear of painting all Russians with the same brush.

That said, discerning principled and like-minded émigrés from malevolent ones has proven to be something of a fool’s errand for Western immigration authorities. The desperation to flee Russia is such that Kremlin loyalists will gladly masquerade as anti-war critics or LGBT+ activists for the sake of evading enlistment and putting flesh on the bones of their asylum bids in mainland Europe or farther afield.

Passports up for grabs

It is no secret that Russia’s morally-bankrupt government has used the expedited granting of citizenship as a subterfuge to dupe undocumented Central Asian migrants into forced conscription. Worse still, the Russian passport is now officially up for grabs for foreign mercenaries who commit to serving at least a one-year stint in Ukraine while the vetting process applicants and their immediate relatives undergo has been short-circuited to only a month.

Having painstakingly managed to phase out Russian hydrocarbons, the EU should be at the forefront of imposing draconian visa constraints on the aggressor’s roughly 150 million inhabitants and thereby, undermining its effort to commoditise naturalisation.

Fellow member states’ reservations about meeting the Baltics, Poland and Czechia halfway when it comes to outright barring Russian visitors from their territory calls into question the very sanctity and legitimacy of Schengen, as does the reinstatement of internal border checks throughout Central Europe.

Notwithstanding, the renewed push for enlargement after more than a decade of inertia gives Brussels far greater leverage over ambivalent candidates like Serbia, Montenegro and Georgia which still maintain an open-door policy vis-à-vis Russia and issue residence permits galore to draft dodgers.

Gone are the day of having it both ways as these peripheral states now face a clear-cut choice between future accession to the world’s largest trading bloc or blindly tethering themselves to an empire-building pariah cut off from the international community at large.

Time to add Russia to the SSOT list

As for the United States, its obstinate refusal to designate Russia a State Sponsor of Terrorism (SSOT) has spared the latter from being on the receiving end of a similar “maximum pressure campaign” that co-belligerents Iran, Syria and North Korea are reeling under.

The fact that practically all diplomatic efforts aimed at getting Putin to come to his senses have been exhausted together with his unilateral withdrawal from the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) three months ago makes such a course of action far more palatable today than at the full scale invasion’s outset.

In terms of optics, it is incumbent on the Biden Administration to reaffirm their solidarity with Ukraine against the backdrop of stalled US aid. Symbolism aside, adding Moscow to the SSOT list will have a direct bearing on the ease with which ordinary Russians can open offshore accounts, conduct cross-border transactions and by extension, funnel badly-needed foreign currency back to the Kremlin’s coffers.

They will find themselves routinely flagged as undesirables by banks and financial institutions the world over owing to the compliance nightmare their onboarding would entail. More importantly, however, a drastic yet bold undertaking of this kind will place immense stain on Russia’s treasured relationship with the Global South.

Bleeding the Kremlin’s war chest dry

Needless to say, Putin’s bullishness on the newly-expanded BRICS as well as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) is not shared by his own people—particularly those of means who are still overwhelmingly drawn to the West for academia, tourism, financial services and even resettlement.

Both semi-informal groupings are, for the most part, considered mere talking shops with no real raison d’être apart from paving the way for an alleged “global rebalancing of power”.

Nonetheless, winning over their “fence-sitters” by making the cost of doing business with Russia exceedingly high, and rolling out secondary sanctions to that end as and when necessary, could bleed the Kremlin’s war chest dry.

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