Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a special decree simplifying the procedure for obtaining a Russian passport for residents of the rebel-controlled Donetsk and Luhansk regions of eastern Ukraine, Reuters reported on April 24.
A team of Ukraine’s president-elect Volodymyr Zelenskiy immediate came out with a strongly worded statement saying that the order “doesn’t bring Donbass closer to a ceasefire” and confirms Russia’s role as an “aggressor state.”
In the run up to Ukrainians presidential elections many feared Zelenskiy, a Russian speaker, would be soft on Moscow.
President Petro Poroshenko said in a separate statement that, with this decree, "Russia is torpedoing the peace process in Donbas,” as cited by RFE/RL.
The US embassy in Kyiv posted on Twitter that the decree was "absurd and destabilizing" and reaffirmed "our strong support for Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity."
The Kremlin justified the decree saying its goal is "to protect human and civil rights" and that the move was "based on universal principles and norms of the international law.
Meanwhile, Russian media reported the same day that people who live permanently in certain areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine will take an oath on being granted Russian citizenship, according to Putin's special decree.
According to the document, the Interior Ministry, the Foreign Ministry, the Federal Security Service, the Russian Guard, and the heads of the Russian regions where authorised Interior Ministry bodies are located are ordered to "provide conditions for people on whom a decision is made to grant them Russian citizenship to take an oath of a citizen of the Russian Federation", Interfax reported on April 24.
The Interior Ministry is also obligated to determine the procedure for making decisions on applications for Russian citizenship filed in accordance with the decree, as well as the procedures for issuing Russian passports to those granted Russian citizenship.
Later the same day, Kyiv appealed to the UN Security Council in connection with Putin's move. "By the order of [President Petro] Poroshenko, we have already appealed to the UN Security Council. This audacious step contradicts the Minsk agreements approved by the Security Council!" the permanent representative of Ukraine to the organisation, Volodymyr Yelchenko, tweeted.
The news sparked a storm of comment as the decision is seen as a jab at the Ukraine’s president-elect Volodymyr Zelenskiy and designed as a test before he formally takes office in June.
The decision also ends any speculation that Zelenskiy is some sort of Kremlin stooge, a line that President Petro Poroshenko sold constantly during his election campaign.
“So clear warning from the Kremlin about Ze talking about other former Soviet countries taking lessons from free and fair elections in Ukraine. I thought the line was that Putin favoured Zelensky over Poroshenko? Clearly not the case, he frightens Moscow,” tweeted Tim Ash, Senior Sovereign Strategist at BlueBay Asset Management, referring to Zelenskiy comment on election night: “countries of the former Soviet Union: look at us – anyting is possible!”
The Kremlin also overtly warned Zelenskiy not to try and address the Russian population directly, after speculation surfaced in the last few days that the president elect may by pass talks with the Kremlin completely and simply address the Russian population directly via social media.
The reaction to the news was negative amongst most analysts, who worry that the what might be intended as a political gesture will have serious real world consequences.
“Putin has allowed Donbass residents to apply for Russian citizenship.If this leads to future absorption of territory,this is very wrong.Russia doesn’t need more land.However,it would benefit from more people coming to live in RUS,from Donbass,Transnistria,rest of Ukraine and Moldova, elsewhere,” tweeted Dmitri Trenin, the director of Moscow’s Carnegie Center.
The migration point was taken up by many as the break away eastern regions in Ukraine could be emptied of people if passports are distributed, say analysts.
“I'm not quite sure Moscow has thought through the migration consequences of handing passports and full access to the Russian labour market to 100,000s of residents of a deeply impoverished conflict-ridden region,” tweeted Alexander Clarkson, a lecturer for European studies at King’s College London.
The war torn regions are desperately poor and giving the locals a Russian passport will hand residents access to the large Russian labour market where incomes are twice those in Ukraine and jobs are currently plentiful. Indeed, with Russia’s population shrinking now the demographic dip of the 90s has hit the population curve, Russia is increasingly dependent on immigrant labour.
The ramifications of the move are unclear but what worries many is Moscow also handed out passports to the inhabitants of the former Georgian region of Abkhazia, before it was also annexed by Russia. Having a majority of newly minted Russian passport holders in a region becomes a justification for more aggressive Russian action as under the Russian constitution the state is obliged to protect its citizens wherever they are – including if they live in another country.
Oleksandr Turchynov, secretary of Ukraine's National Security Council, issued a statement saying that, "Putin is creating legal conditions for an official application of armed forces against Ukraine. This is related to Russian legislation allowing the use of armed forces for protecting Russian citizens outside of Russia.”
The decree could endanger the attempt to “reboot” the peace process Zelenskiy promised voters before he has a chance to start. Over the past two years, the Normandy format representatives (Germany, France, Ukraine and Russia) failed to secure any significant progress during talks on settling the conflict, which erupted in 2014 as pro-Russian separatists in East Ukraine broke away from Kyiv's central control. Around 11,000 servicemen, rebels and civilians have so far died.
In 2016, the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France agreed in Berlin to draft a new road map for the implementation of the Minsk peace accords reached in the capital in 2015. The road map is intended to ensure the success of political, security and humanitarian measures in the Donbas region.
Earlier, President Petro Poroshenko said that Kyiv favours the deployment of a full-scale UN peacekeeping mission in Donbas. However, the mission's purpose "should be not to perpetuate the Russian occupation and legalise the Russian military presence but ensure durable peace in certain districts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine and fully restore our state's territorial integrity".
Kyiv also insists that the UN mission should comply with the guiding principles of UN peacekeeping operations, which a priori rule out the participation of an aggressor country or a party to the conflict in it, which mean that the Ukrainian leadership opposes including the Russians in the mission.