Putin ramps up aggression against Ukraine through so-called ‘Russian citizens’ in occupied Donbas
Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered ‘consideration’ of whether to provide so-called Russian citizens living in the Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts of Ukraine with the possibility of receiving Russian social benefits and payments. This is the latest move in the Kremlin’s use of Russian citizenship as a weapon in its undeclared war against Ukraine, and comes at a time when all western eyes are on the mass build-up of Russian soldiers and military hardware on Ukraine’s border.
Up till now, Russia’s passport jamboree in the self-proclaimed and Russian-controlled ‘Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics’ [‘D-LPR’] gave fairly little material benefit to those who received ‘Russian citizenship’ through simplified procedure. Without Russian ‘propiska’ [registration based on formal place of residence in Russia or occupied Crimea], such a ‘citizen’ was still not eligible for Russian pensions or social benefits. This may now be able to change.
The proposal reported on 29 January on the Kremlin website envisages that ‘the government’ should consider providing “citizens of the Russian Federation living on the territory of specific regions of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts of Ukraine with the possibility of making applications for social payments and benefits with the use of a single portal of state and municipal services, without provided registration according to place of residence on the territory of the Russian Federation.” Russian prime minister Mikhail Mishustin has been made responsible for this, with his report due to be presented on 1 May.
In an article for the Russian Service of Radio Svoboda, Aleksandr Isak points out that there have long been methods for ‘breaking into’ Russia’s system for child benefits, with such ‘services’ offered in Germany and in occupied Donbas. There is a whole market for temporary Russian registration, for example. For the moment, Isak writes, the social benefits envisaged would only help those who travel at least sometimes for temporary employment. Those in ‘D-LPR’, he asserts, are waiting to hear the crucial word ‘pensions’.
The material benefits of such moves are clearly not what this is about. Despite recent initiatives from largely puppet alternative parties in the State Duma on ‘recognizing’ the so-called Donbas ‘republics’, Moscow must understand that such recognition would be taken by the West to signify an act of aggression against Ukraine and would incur sanctions. Isak reports that talk emerged in December 2021 that “the main result of the current escalation around Donbas will not be recognition by Russia of ‘D-LPR’, but the inclusion of Russian citizens there into the system of Russian benefits and pensions.<> Access to the Russian pension system as the main sign of union with Russia is awaited here with cautious optimism.”
According to a study published by the Donetsk Information Institute in October 2020, the number of Ukrainians in occupied Donbas who had taken Russian citizenship at that stage was much lower than had been predicted by Moscow and the puppet leaders of ‘D-LPR’, with only 7% said to have taken such citizenship. Prior to the last Russian ‘elections’, Russia used all kinds of measures to both raise that number and to coerce these artificially created ‘Russian citizens’ into taking part in the elections. According to Isak, more money has been flowing into ‘D-LPR’ since the summer of 2021, and more methods of economic ‘integration’.
Putin began artificially pumping up the number of purported ‘Russian citizens’ in Eastern Ukraine through his first decree on 24 April 2019, simplifying the procedure for residents of ‘D-LPR’ to get Russian citizenship, and then a second decree on 17 July 2019, extending the simplified procedure for all Ukrainians in the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts (Donbas). Although Putin, of course, claimed this to be ‘a humanitarian measure’, rumours had been reported in the Russian media of such a plan, with the reports accompanied by comments about how successful such mass issue of passports had been in Russia’s seizure of control of the Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Novaya Gazeta journalist Pavel Kanygin noted at the time that Moscow was making its threat to the newly elected Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky quite clear. If his administration didn’t accept Moscow’s terms for taking back the so-called ‘republics’, they could end up with millions of Russian citizens whom Russia would then claim it was entitled ‘to protect’.
The threat remains and is voiced quite frequently, including by representatives of Putin’s ruling ‘United Russia’ party. On 21 January 2022, TASS reported a statement from the State Duma “that Russia cannot allow Russians living in Donbas to be killed”. Viktor Vodolatsky, United Russia deputy and first deputy head of the committee on CIS affairs, Eurasian integration and links with compatriots, claimed that they would “take all measures within the framework of international law and our constitution to defend citizens of the Russian Federation”. Mention of ‘international law’ need not be taken seriously given Russia’s flagrant violation of this since February 2014 and the fact that Putin was well aware, when issuing his decrees, that Ukraine does not allow dual nationality.
There was international condemnation of Putin’s decrees back in 2019. The European Union, for example, condemned the decrees as being in violation of the Minsk Agreement and on 10 October 2019 stated that they did not recognize Russian passports issued in occupied Donbas. Russia’s gradual ‘integration’ of its proxy Donbas ‘republics’ has, however, largely elicited only expressions of ‘deep concern’ or condemnation, and it is continuing unrestrained.