Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law that would grant Russian passports to millions of Ukrainians living in the separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. While this may seem like an innocuous declaration to the casual observer, the international community is up in arms in opposition to the move.
Ukraine’s foreign minister Pavlo Klimkin tweeted the following in reaction to the announcement, which has been translated from the original Ukrainian:
“I call on Ukrainian citizens in Russian-occupied territories not to accept Russian passports. Russia has deprived you of the present, but now it encroaches on your future.”
The West has supported Ukraine in response to this Russian act. The European Union denounced the move as “another attack on Ukraine’s sovereignty by Russia,” while Lithuania’s foreign minister Linas Linkevicius commented in an interview with Reuters, “this is a blatant violation of international law. And basically also a kind of test to the new [Ukrainian] leadership, which is also a usual game.”
Indeed, it is certainly no coincidence that Putin took such a bold step just days after Ukraine elected the comedian Volodymyr Zelensky as president, ousting the highly unpopular incumbent Petro Poroshenko. Zelensky has never held public office.
Therefore, this move by Putin can be rightly interpreted as a preliminary probe to test his new counterpart’s capabilities. Moreover, the timing is especially ideal for Russia because Zelenksy is in no position to retaliate right away since the deadline for his inauguration is not until June 3.
But what is the significance of Russian passports in eastern Ukraine? The official Russian rationale is based on humanitarian reasons. Putin commented that before the announcement, the residents of Donetsk and Luhansk were “completely deprived of civil rights” and were unable to neither “move normally” or “realize their most elementary needs.”
Objective observers may see the law in a more critical light. The decision to grant passports to citizens in a different country without that government’s permission is a clear breach of sovereignty. What is even more concerning, however, is that Russia has employed this strategy before.
In 2002, Russia allowed citizens in Abkhazia, now one of Georgia’s breakaway regions, to obtain Russian passports.
Six years later, Russia invaded Georgia under the guise of defending Russian nationals in the region. But in reality, this action helped Abkhazia and South Ossetia break away. Thus it would be logical to presume that Russia’s intentions in eastern Ukraine are similar.
Zelensky will therefore face an immediate crisis when he assumes the presidency in about a month. Skeptics argue the comedian-turned-head of state is nothing but a puppet of the oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, who is a rival of Poroshenko’s. Zelensky’s reaction to the crisis will, therefore, be a quick demonstration of his mettle.
However, Zelensky doesn’t have much leverage over Russia. He could call for further sanctions and, as Linkevicius suggested, not recognize these new passports. Zelensky could also seek further negotiation with Putin, which was something he said he would pursue. If Putin’s comments can be trusted, the Russian leader may, in fact, be open to this option.
On Saturday at a press conference in Beijing, Putin said, “If we ever meet in order to hold talks — and I don’t rule out such a possibility — we will first and foremost have to discuss ways to end the conflict in southeastern Ukraine.”
However, if the intentions behind the move are synonymous with Russia’s intentions in Georgia back in 2002, it is likely there is little Zelensky can do to sway the Kremlin.
Much like in the case of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, it is most likely that Putin intends to solidify his de facto — rather than his de jure — control over eastern Ukraine. Issuing passports appears to be just one of many steps to achieving that goal.