Putin offers Russian passports in occupied Donbas in new act of aggression against Ukraine
Russia has been threatening to issue Ukrainians in occupied Donbas with Russian passports for a very long time. Russian President Vladimir Putin chose to carry out this threat three days after Ukrainians overwhelmingly voted in a new President, whom Moscow has yet to even recognize. If Putin’s 24 April decree, simplifying the process for Donbas residents to gain Russian citizenship, is a direct attempt to extract concessions from the President-Elect Volodymyr Zelensky, the statement from the latter’s team seems to suggest that the plan has backfired.
Analogies with the issue of passports to South Ossetians and Abkhazians as the excuse for Russia’s war against Georgia in 2008 are not only inevitable, but seemingly deliberate. Novaya Gazeta correspondent Pavel Kanygin notes that the constant rumours and talk previously about issuing passports in Donbas have been accompanied by comments about how such a policy was successfully carried out in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. “That is, Moscow is making the threat clear that the handing out of citizenship is at very least a step towards recognizing the territory. If you don’t want to take back “the republics” on our conditions …, then get millions of Russian citizens throughout your country”.
Kanygin explains that there is a legislative basis, adopted by the State Duma in October 2018, which the deputies never tried to conceal was with Ukraine in mind.
Russia’s claim that it is seeking reintegration of the so-called ‘Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics’ [hereafter the ‘republics’] with Ukraine is not borne out by its behaviour. Even if one ignores the widely recognized control that Russia exerts over the nominal leaders of the ‘republics’, there are also open measures, such as Russia’s importing of its textbooks and school standards. Kanygin reports unnamed sources close to those, like Vladislav Surkov, in control of the ‘republics’ as saying that Russia’s plan is for the ‘republics’ to have been as closely bound to Russia as possible before their reintegration with government-controlled Ukraine.
Kanygin clearly believes that Moscow is assuming that Ukrainians who take Russian citizenship will still retain Ukrainian.
That, however, is not necessarily clear. A representative of Ukraine’s outgoing President Petro Poroshenko pointed out immediately that the situation here is quite unlike in Crimea. Ukrainians who choose to take up Putin’s offer will have to renounce Ukrainian citizenship, as Ukraine does not permit dual citizenship Even from a brutally pragmatic point of view, they might well waver at doing this given that even Russia has stopped short of recognizing these supposed ‘republics’.
It is hard to understand what the Kremlin would gain by any such recognition now, however Putin’s popularity has plummeted recently and he could be hoping for another warmongering propaganda drive like that around his invasion of Crimea.
Whether or not Putin is willing to move in this direction, there would still be evident problems for Ukraine. In Crimea, the situation is clear. Russia has made it next to impossible for Ukrainians to live, work and receive medical care in occupied Crimea without Russian citizenship, and therefore Ukraine has accepted dual citizenship on the grounds that Ukrainians cannot be said to have voluntarily taken on Russian citizenship.
There will be no way of verifying whether Ukrainians voluntarily accepted Russian citizenship in occupied Donbas, and, even if they did, it is still a very serious step to deprive Ukrainians of protection as citizens of Ukraine.
Putin claimed that the decision to issue passports was “of a humanitarian nature” and that, while having “no wish to create problems for the new Ukrainian leadership”, they could not tolerate a situation where citizens of these ‘republics’ “are deprived of any civil rights”. Surkov in turn claimed that this was “Russia’s duty to people speaking and thinking in Russian and who are now in a very difficult situation”.
Russia has focused on the totally unsubstantiated claim that Ukraine’s government is persecuting the predominantly Russian-speaking Donbas since 2014, and it is just possible that the move has also been timed for the eve of an important vote on a language law in Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada on 25 April.
The claims about protecting ‘civil rights’ are difficult to take seriously, and that is without considering Russia’s direct role in the war and bloodshed. Yes, it is true that Ukrainians living in occupied territory must cross into government-controlled Ukraine to receive their pensions and social benefits. There are compelling reasons for this, however it cannot be denied that the move is highly controversial.
With respect to all other civil rights, Putin’s words are of quite extraordinary cynicism. The first thing that Russian and some pro-Russian militants did when they seized control of areas of Donbas in 2014 was to cut off all Ukrainian media, and the list of Internet sites which are blocked because they provide a truthful picture of events in Donbas, other parts of Ukraine, including Crimea and Russia is very long. There is mounting religious persecution, with the ‘republics’ following Russia in banning the Jehovah’s Witnesses and harassing believers from all other faiths except the Orthodox Church under the Moscow Patriarchate. There are well over a hundred civilian hostages and prisoners of war, including many, like journalist Stanislav Aseyev, who should also be considered political prisoners. None of these people have any chance of a fair trial. The list of flagrant violations of fundamental rights can be continued, but they broadly follow those under the Putin regime in Russia, so the obtaining of Russian citizenship will certainly not enhance people’s situation.
A challenge to President-Elect Zelensky?
It is widely assumed that Putin has done this to put pressure on the newly-elected President, who was voted in promising to bring peace to Donbas. For the moment, Zelensky is still continuing to be less than forthcoming with details about where he stands on almost everything. The Zelensky Team did, however, issue a statement that was surely unequivocal enough for those who feared that Zelensky was willing to sell out to Russia. The statement says that “through the decree on issue of Russian passports to Ukrainian citizens on territory temporarily not under government control, the Russian Federation has recognized its responsibility as occupying state. These actions are yet another clear confirmation for the world community of Russia’s true role as aggressor state, waging war against Ukraine”.
The position is somewhat different from the Poroshenko stand outlined above, since the Zelensky team states that “despite this, Ukraine will do everything in its power to defend, provide the proper help and ensure the rights of its citizens who are forced to be on occupied territory.” They go on to say that Ukraine also counts on support from the international community in defending Ukrainians’ rights in occupied territory and the strengthening of diplomatic and sanctions-based pressure on the Russian Federation.