Ukraine’s Infrastructure Minister Volodymyr Omelyan has been stepping up his insistence that train and bus routes to Russia should be canceled. Such a decision would need to be approved by President Petro Poroshenko. Omelyan’s recommendation is driven by security concerns: Kyiv alleges that visitors from Russia played a critical role in fomenting the separatist movement in eastern and southern Ukraine in 2014, while numerous political prisoners from Ukraine, several of whom were seized while traveling to Russia, continue to face serious hardships in Russian custody. However, Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin contends that cutting transport communication with Russia would be wrong from a humanitarian point of view. Instead, he favors adopting a strict visa regime with Russia.
Omelyan has for a long time insisted that passenger transport communication with Russia should be blocked. And last month (August 2018), his ministry came up with a specific plan to do just that. Yet, when the local news agency Ukrainski Novyny asked the ministry about details of the plan, it was told the document was not for public use (Ukranews.com, September 3). Explaining his reasoning last month, Omelyan said cutting rail and bus links would officially be part of a set of measures in response to Russia indiscriminately stopping commercial ships en route to Ukrainian ports in the Sea of Azov (see EDM, April 12, May 8, June 11). He said there should be no cooperation with Russia and no visits at a time of war. The infrastructure minister also asserted that those who continued to travel to Russia were doing so at their own peril, as they could be kidnapped by Russian special services (Segodnya.ua, August 18).
In spite of the war in the east and the growing flow of Ukrainian migrants to the European Union, Russia remains an important destination for Ukrainian labor migrants, and transportation is essential for them. Omelyan is obviously aware of this, but he urged more guest workers to prefer the EU over Russia. Labor migrants would earn more and be safer in the EU, Omelyan said, adding that Ukrainian trains would be transferred from routes to Russia to carry more Ukrainians westward, to Europe. As for Russia, passenger flows there have already fallen to 800,000 from 4 million since 2013, according to Omelyan (Pravda.com.ua, August 17).
Ukraine and Russia mutually cut air flights between them in 2015. Even if passenger flows declined somewhat as a result, the measure has been a boon to Belarusian airlines: the Belarusian capital of Minsk has, all of a sudden, become the main transit link for travelers between Russia and Ukraine. It is not clear whether the figure mentioned by Omelyan took into account the transit traffic through Belarus. It is also doubtful that official statistics takes into account the informal, untaxed bus routes to Russia or the rapidly developing Internet-driven marketplaces for carpooling. If Kyiv cuts direct transportation links to Russia, both transit via Belarus and informal transportation are likely to grow, at the expense of official carriers and the Ukrainian budget, which will inevitably lose some revenue as a result. Passenger trains to Moscow, for example, have been the most profitable ones in Ukraine in recent years (Pravda.com.ua, September 4).
Millions of Ukrainians have relatives and friends in Russia. Many of them are ethnic Russians, who accounted for more than 17 percent of Ukraine’s population in 2001, when the latest census was conducted in Ukraine. Millions of them are still there, even after 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea, where ethnic Russians dominate, and de facto cut off from Ukraine the eastern part of the Donbas region, where strong family links with Russia are particularly prevalent.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Klimkin, who originally hails from Russia himself, opposes Omelyan. He said those Ukrainians accustomed to travel to Russia should not suffer, and he warned against labeling them as traitors. According to Klimkin, they go to Russia because they have relatives or jobs there (Ukrinform.ru, August 22). Klimkin favors tougher border crossing procedures over cutting transportation links. On a recent TV talk show, he suggested that Ukraine needs a biometric visa regime with Russia (Interfax, September 4). Ukraine did introduce biometric controls for countries with high migration risk, including Russia, since January 1. But Russian citizens do not need visas to cross the border for the time being.
In the meantime, Ukrainian emigration to the EU has been rapidly growing over the last decade or so. Boosted by Moscow’s armed aggression and the resultant economic crisis in 2014–2015, travel to Europe will likely further increase if either the remaining transport links with Russia are cut or biometric visas are needed for travel to and from Ukraine’s large eastern neighbor. Klimkin warned of “catastrophic” proportions of emigration from Ukraine, estimating it at one million people each year, and noting that about 1.4 million Ukrainians already reside in Poland. He does not expect this to change in the foreseeable future (Interfax, September 3). Plagued by war, corruption, and poverty, Ukraine can expect to keep losing some of its best brains and hands—whether to Russia or the EU.