Analysis published in RUSI Newsbrief Nr. 39, on 11/07/2019
How newly-elected Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy responds to Moscow’s provision of Russian passports to residents in occupied Donbas will not only set the tone for his administration’s foreign policy, but could seriously unsettle Putin’s project of consolidating a sphere of influence in the post-Soviet region.
By 10 July 2019, over 20,000 Ukrainian residents of the self-proclaimed Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics have completed their applications to receive Russian passports under a facilitated procedure. According to Ukrainian Deputy Minister on the Affairs of the Temporarily Occupied Areas Heorhiy Tuka, more than 1,000 people have already received the Russian citizenship. The number of applicants is actually quite marginal, considering that an estimated 3 million people reside in Luhansk and its sister republic of Donetsk, territories that were de facto cut off from the rest of Ukraine following the start of a war in Spring 2014. But the pace of incoming applications is still remarkable, since over 500 residents of the Luhansk self-proclaimed Republic had applied only three weeks after Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree to simplify the granting of Russian citizenship to residents of Luhansk and Donetsk residents. According to a poll mentioned by Kirill Alzinov, the spokesman for migration affairs in the Russian Interior Ministry, almost 90% of these residents would be interested, for the obvious privileges of visa free-travel and access to Russian state social benefits. To many in Ukraine and its Western embassies, the move has come as yet another blow to the endangered Minsk Peace Accord.
The Russian head of state did not end there. On 1 May, Putin signed another decree to extend the simplified procedure to any citizen of Ukraine who does not hold citizenship of another state, and stateless persons who were born and permanently resided in Crimea but left the peninsula before the annexation of 18 March 2014. He earlier suggested that he may offer a simplified procedure to all Ukrainian citizens. The ‘passportisation’ of the Kremlin’s intervention in Ukraine has been widely discussed in reference to Georgia. The simplified process for granting Russian passports to populations in the occupied territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia turned out to justify Russian military intervention in 2008 on behalf of the protection of Russian citizens. ‘Next time Putin wants to send his soldiers to Ukraine, he won’t even need to pretend’, Deputy Minister Heorhiy Tuka foresees.
The concern is real. However, the Russian President’s initiatives do not make for anything new. Russia has deployed troops in Ukrainian territories since 2014. The Kremlin has engaged soldiers in active combat on several instances. As for the passportisation policy, the possibility to obtain Russian citizenship for Ukrainian citizens has existed since the breakup of the Soviet Union, in spite of a formal constitutional requirement for Ukrainian citizens to hold only one citizenship. However, it is undeniable that Putin’s passportisation policy does represent an increased security threat to Ukraine. More than a blow to peace talks, it is a further infringement to its sovereignty. It also enhances the chances of war criminals being able to escape Ukrainian justice.
Yet, it is arguable that the passport initiative is first and foremost a test for newly-elected Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Putin signed his first decree only three days after Zelenskiy’s victory, a candidate who promised to reboot peace negotiations. The Kremlin has coupled their passport initiative with new trade and energy sanctions. Such moves must be understood as a set of constraints placed onto the young head of state. Therefore some elements of the solution to the issue lie in the response that is yet to be formulated by Volodymyr Zelenskiy.