The EU’s foreign ministers are expected to approve suspending the bloc’s visa facilitation agreement with Moscow next week, as Russian rocket and artillery strikes hit areas across the Dnieper River from the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant.
The EU move, aimed at reducing the number of visas issued to Russian nationals after pressure from eastern member states, falls short of an outright ban but would make getting travel documents significantly more complicated and expensive.
The Financial Times quoted one EU official as saying its was “inappropriate for Russian tourists to stroll in our cities” and the bloc had to “send a signal to the Russian population that this war is not OK, it is not acceptable”.
Another told the paper that before the end of the year the bloc aimed to go further than ending the agreement, which would remove the current preferential treatment for Russian citizens when they are applying for any kind of EU visa.
The bloc’s foreign ministers are due to meet in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, which hold’s the EU’s rotating presidency, on Tuesday where they are expected to give their political backing to the suspension.
However, the bloc is far from united on increasingly vocal demands from countries such as the Czech Republic, Poland and the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – many of which have stopped issuing visas to Russians for all but essential travel – for an EU-wide ban on Russian tourists.
Many other member states continue to issue travel documents to Russian citizens, meaning they can travel freely throughout the Schengen passport-free zone.
Finland, which has said Russians are increasingly dodging the closure of EU airspace by using Helsinki airport as a gateway to the zone, announced this month that it would restrict Russian visa applications to one-tenth of the current number.
But countries such as Germany have insisted an outright ban would be misguided, and Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign affairs chief, has argued prohibition is “not a good idea”. The bloc “has to be more selective”, Borrell said last week.
On the ground in Ukraine, Russian artillery fired at towns across the Dnieper from the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, Europe’s largest, officals said on Sunday, amid mounting concern over a possible radiation disaster.
Each sides has accused the other of targeting the plant, which was captured by Russian troops in March but is still run by Ukrainian staff and has become a major hotspot in the conflict, which has now entered its seventh month.
The regional governor, Oleksandr Starukh, said on Telegram that Russian forces had struck residential buildings in the region’s main city of Zaporizhzhia, two hours’ drive from the plant, while Ukraine’s army command reported that towns had been struck on the opposite bank of the Dnieper from the plant.
Moscow said nine Ukrainian artillery shells had landed in the power station’s grounds, technical personnel were monitoring the condition of the site and radiation levels remained normal. None of the reports could be verified.
Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, said Russia had turned the plant into a military base and was putting the whole continent at risk. Both the UN and Kyiv have called for a withdrawal of military equipment and personnel from the plant, which the UN nuclear watchdog is waiting for clearance visit.
In eastern Ukraine, where Russian and separatist forces are battling for control, shelling hit the strategically significant cities of Kramatorsk and Sloviansk but no casualties were reported, Pavlo Kyrylenko, the governor of the Donetsk region, said.
Defenders foiled Russian attempts to break through around the strategic city of Bakhmut, Ukraine’s armed forces said.
Britain’s defence ministry said in its latest briefing that Russia had lost “tens of thousands” of troops and it was not clear how more would be recruited.
A decree signed by Vladimir Putin to increase the size of the armed forces from 1.9m to 2.04m was unlikely to make “substantive progress” towards increasing Russia’s combat power, the report said.
Reuters contributed to this report