Latest Russian threat: Giving passports to Donbas residents
With Russia’s war on Ukraine in the Donbas and its occupation of Crimea recently entering their sixth year, the Kremlin is now preparing to inflict another blow against Ukraine’s sovereignty.
On the afternoon of April 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree allowing individuals living in the Russian-occupied parts of eastern Ukraine to gain Russian citizenship through a simplified procedure.
In all, the decree would allow more than 3 million Ukrainian citizens “permanently living in certain areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts of Ukraine” to be eligible to apply for Russian passports, even though under Russian law they ordinarily wouldn’t meet a number of criteria for gaining Russian citizenship.
These criteria include residing in Russia for at least five years, having a residence permit, having a legal source of income, renouncing foreign citizenship, and being proficient in the Russian language.
Instead, Donbas residents wishing to gain Russian citizenship will be able to contact Russia’s Interior Ministry and file an application along with copies of identification documents issued by the Russiancontrolled authorities in the occupied parts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts.
Since February, Russia has officially recognized the “passports” issued by its occupation authorities in eastern Ukraine, although it has never diplomatically recognized the areas as being separate from Ukraine.
Citizenship requests submitted by residents of the Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine’s Donbas will now be processed in a shortened period of just three months, according to the decree.
Moreover, as the Russian Interior Ministry clarified later in the day, Donbas residents who want to get Russian passports will not even have to renounce their Ukrainian citizenship — which means that they will still be entitled to enjoy social benefits from Ukraine and visa-free travel in the Schengen Area of Europe.
The new regulation came into effect immediately after its official publication.
Vladislav Surkov, a Russian presidential aide who is said to be responsible for running part of the Russianoccupied Donbas from the Kremlin, called the move “the duty of the Russian Federation to those speaking and thinking in Russian.”
Those living in the Russianoccupied part of Donbas “now find themselves in a difficult situation because of the repressive actions of the Kyivan regime,” Surkov told Russia’s state-controlled TASS news agency.
Surkov also falsely claimed that “Ukraine refuses to recognize them as its citizens by invoking a trade blockade, not allowing them to vote, and using military force against them.”
Putin himself claimed the move to be “of a purely humanitarian nature” and compared it to Poland issuing the Pole’s Card to ethnic Poles (although this is not a passport and does not grant citizenship or residency rights), and to the actions of Romania, which he claimed issues its passports to ethnic Romanians living in Ukraine too — although this is, in most cases, illegal in Ukraine.
“Why should Russians living in Ukraine be different from Romanians, Poles, and Hungarians?” he said during his April 25 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Vladivostok.
Cause for further war?
Just several days before that, on April 18, Russia dealt another blow to Ukraine by banning exports of oil, oil products, coal, and pipes to the country starting from June 1.
The abrupt new move to allow issuing Russian passports to Ukrainians in the Donbas immediately provoked a strong reaction in Ukraine and beyond, with officials voicing fears that there would be an escalation of Russia’s undeclared war on Ukraine.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin called the move “a continuation of aggression and meddling in our domestic affairs” and “the new ‘passport’ stage of (Russia’s) occupation of the Donbas.”
In a video address to the nation, incumbent President Petro Poroshenko said that the Kremlin’s move was “an attempt to justify and legitimize Russia’s military presence in the occupied parts of the Ukrainian Donbas.”
He also called on Kyiv’s partners to strengthen sanctions against the Kremlin.
Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Ukraine’s president-elect, issued a written statement, denouncing Russia as “an aggressor state waging a war against Ukraine.”
Meanwhile, the chairman of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, Oleksandr Turchynov, gave a graver assessment.
By issuing its passports in the Donbas, Russia was laying the legal groundwork that would enable it to more easily deploy its armed forces there, he said.
“It has to do with the fact that Russian legislation allows for the deployment of its armed forces to protect Russian citizens overseas,” the official said on April 24.
“There can be only one answer to that: amplifying our defensive potential and an appropriate international reaction regarding the Kremlin’s criminal acts — along with growing sanctions pressure on the aggressor state.”
Borys Babin, former presidential envoy to Crimea, compared the move to Russia’s earlier strategy of issuing its passports to residents of the Georgian region of Abkhazia in the early 2000s. During the 2008 war with Georgia, this was used by the Kremlin as justification for its military intervention in the region and its subsequent occupation and formal recognition of the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
“Russia has launched the Abkhazian scenario in Ukraine’s east,” the expert wrote on his Facebook page on April 21. “Russian citizenship for the residents of the occupied territories is the first formal stage. When the aggressor state will recognize the independence of the ‘people’s republics’ (meaning the areas of the Donbas under Russianoccupation) is an open question.”
He also called for breaking all diplomatic ties with Russia.
The U. S., the U.K. and the European Union have all supported Kyiv, issuing strong statements of condemnation against the Kremlin’s move. They labeled it another attack on Ukraine’s sovereignty. And late on April 25, Ukraine appealed to the United Nations Security Council over the matter.
Putin’s decree did not come as a complete surprise.
As far back as April 17, the Russian newspaper Kommersant reported the Kremlin’s intention to start issuing Russian passports to residents of the occupied Donbas after the presidential elections in Ukraine.
Citing sources in the Russian government, the newspaper also reported that all necessary infrastructure for accepting citizenship applications had already been deployed in Russian regions bordering Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, particularly in the cities of Shakhty and Novoshakhtinsk in Russia’s neighboring Rostov Oblast.
Just a day after the decree’s publication, Russian-occupation authorities in Donetsk reported that a “simplified procedure” for crossing the border with Russia would be launched on May 3.
Moreover, according to the head of the Russian-occupation authorities in Donetsk, Denis Pushilin, those who want to apply for Russian passports will be transported to Russian territory “in a centralized way.”
According to Pavlo Lysyanskiy, the Verkhovna Rada ombudsman for Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, the whole process of offering Russian citizenship to residents of the Russianoccupied parts of Ukraine has a much longer history.
“It’s all predictable, they’ve prepared this,” the official said late on April 24.
“It’s a clear scenario: The Russianoccupation authorities working in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts are ready for this, and the decree is a signal for them to start. They were making lists and invited people to submit preliminary applications to get (Russian) passports. These applications were being handed over to representatives of the occupation administration.”
According to Lysyanskiy, this process of inviting local civilians to acquire Russian citizenship has been going on for as long as two years. ■
Local civilians cross the Donbas frontline into the Russian-occupied area at the entry point of Stanytsia Luhanska close the occupied city of Luhansk on Dec. 14, 2017. (Oleh Petrasiuk)