Putin Says Russia May Make Passport Offer to All Ukrainians

(Bloomberg) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin said he may extend an offer of citizenship to cover all Ukrainians after he sparked controversy by ordering passports be made available to people in areas of the country controlled by pro-Moscow separatists.

Russia’s offer of citizenship is “not only to the people who live” in the rebel-held areas of Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions, Putin told reporters in Beijing on Saturday. “We are generally thinking to provide a simplified citizenship procedure to Ukrainian citizens.”

Putin Says Russia May Make Passport Offer to All Ukrainians

Ukraine doesn’t permit dual citizenship and it’s unclear how many people would take up Putin’s offer amid deep divisions between the neighbors. Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and backed separatists in Ukraine’s east in a war that’s killed 13,000 people in the past five years.

Ukraine called for “increasing diplomatic and sanctions pressure” by the international community after Putin issued his decree on Wednesday ordering the creation of a fast-track procedure for residents in separatist areas to claim passports.

He acted three days after Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a comic and political novice, won a landslide election victory to become Ukraine’s new president. Zelenskiy hit back at Putin’s latest comments with a lengthy Facebook post that urged officials in Moscow “not to waste their time trying to lure Ukrainian citizens with Russian passports.”

‘Corrupt Regimes’

Russian citizenship offered “the right to be arrested for peaceful protest. It’s the right not to have free and competitive elections,” Zelenskiy wrote. “We will provide Ukrainian citizenship to representatives of all peoples who suffer from authoritarian and corrupt regimes. In the first place - to Russians, who today suffer perhaps more than anyone else.”

Russia will start issuing passports on May 3, with separatist officials and military forces receiving them first, the head of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, Denis Pushilin, said in a phone interview. “That’s a long awaited but a rather unexpected step,” he said.

Russia has made similar moves in other breakaway regions in the former Soviet Union and in at least one case used the presence of newly converted citizens as justification for military intervention. The Kremlin order threatens to ratchet up confrontation between Russia and Ukraine, which has repeatedly accused Putin of sending troops and weapons to aid the separatists. He denies Russian forces are involved. The U.S. and the European Union have imposed sanctions on Russia.

Shared Roots

Ukraine and Russia have shared historical and religious roots, though the bonds of kinship have been strained and even severed since the conflict erupted after the 2014 pro-European revolution in Kiev that ousted Kremlin-backed President Viktor Yanukovych. Ukraine’s Orthodox Church split from the previous Russian hierarchy and established its independence last year.

Lawmakers approved a bill last week strengthening Ukrainian-language requirements across state administration and media, a move backed by outgoing President Petro Poroshenko and criticized by Zelenskiy as potentially divisive. Some 68 percent of people in Ukraine consider Ukrainian as their first language while 14 percent say it’s Russian and 17 percent regard both as their mother tongue, the Kyiv Post reported, citing a 2017 poll by the Razumkov Center.

While Russians need visas to travel to the bloc, more than half a million Ukrainians made use of visa-free travel to the EU in the first year since its introduction in 2017, the Unian news service reported. Ukraine wants to join the EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, while Russia opposes expansion of the military alliance toward its border.

‘Highly Provocative’

Russia said in 2016 that it had taken in more than 1 million people who fled the fighting in eastern Ukraine, according to the Tass news service, though one Russian human rights group estimated the number at less than 200,000.

The U.S. State Department last week condemned Putin’s decree as “highly provocative” and accused Russia of “intensifying its assault on Ukraine’s sovereignty.” Germany and France said in a joint statement that the passport offer “contradicts the spirit and goals” of a stalled 2015 peace agreement intended to resolve the conflict.

Rebel officials say about 3.6 million people live in the areas under their control. About 360,000 people in separatist-held territory in Donetsk have already obtained Russian passports through ordinary procedures, Pushilin said.

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