Putin Confronts New Ukraine Leader With Rebel Zone Passports

(Bloomberg) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree offering passports to people living in breakaway regions of eastern Ukraine, triggering calls for more sanctions against Moscow from the incoming leadership in Kiev.

“This is yet more proof of Russia’s real role as an aggressor state that’s waging a war against Ukraine,” President-elect Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s office said on Facebook after the order was posted on the Kremlin website Wednesday. Ukraine “is counting on increasing diplomatic and sanction pressure” by the international community against Russia, it added.

The Kremlin leader’s citizenship offer comes three days after Zelenskiy, a comic, won a landslide in Sunday’s Ukrainian presidential election. Putin has yet to respond publicly to his victory and Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Monday downplayed the possibility of the two leaders working together. Russia also raised pressure on Ukraine by announcing new trade sanctions days before the vote.

Putin, who annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, ordered a simplified procedure for giving passports to permanent residents in rebel-held areas of the eastern Ukrainian regions of Luhansk and Donetsk. 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 minted citizens as justification for military intervention.

‘Creeping Annexation’

It’s a “purely humanitarian” move because people living in those areas are “deprived of any civil rights,” Putin told a meeting of lawmakers in St. Petersburg. “We have no desire to create problems for the new Ukrainian authorities,” he said.

Russia’s “attempts at creeping annexation” of Ukrainian territory show that it has no interest in deescalation of the conflict, the Foreign Ministry in Kiev said in a statement. Ukraine lodged an immediate complaint with the United Nations Security Council.

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 in a war that’s killed 13,000 people in the past five years. He denies Russian forces are involved. The U.S. and the European Union imposed sanctions on Russia over the conflict, which erupted after the 2014 revolution that swept Ukraine’s pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych from power.

The U.S. State Department condemned the “highly provocative action,” saying in a statement on Wednesday night that Russia was“intensifying its assault on Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Pressure on Ukraine

Russia’s goal is to put pressure on the new Ukrainian administration, said Alexei Chesnakov, a former Kremlin official who now consults the authorities on Ukraine policy. The Kremlin is seeking to force Zelenskiy to “lift the blockade” of the rebel regions and implement a peace agreement signed in the Belarusian capital Minsk in 2015, he said.

While the untested political novice’s defeat on Sunday of outgoing President Petro Poroshenko came as a relief in Moscow, the Russian leadership has reserved judgment on what 41-year-old Zelenskiy’s victory will mean for relations after five years of conflict. He pledged after his victory to bring home Ukrainian prisoners captured in the fighting and to revive the stalled Minsk peace process.

Russia says Ukraine isn’t providing autonomy promised under the accord to the rebel-held areas. Ukraine retorts that international control of the area is needed to prevent the flow of Russian soldiers and weapons. A proposal for UN peacekeepers remains blocked.

The State Department, in its statement, said it was “now up to Russia to decide whether it wants to continue to escalate tensions or meet its Minsk commitments.”

Rebel officials in the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics say about 3.6 million people live in the areas under their control.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.