On 24th April 2019, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree which would simplify the procedure for acquiring Russian citizenship in the regions of Eastern Ukraine namely, Donetsk and Luhansk. He followed this up with another signing on 1st May. It extended the citizenship right to other categories of Ukrainians including the natives of Crimea.
Putin defended the move on humanitarian grounds but it drew criticism from the European Union and Ukraine. Despite the opposition, Russia went ahead with the distribution of passports in these regions of Ukraine.
The Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs had announced on Jan 1, 2020, that it had granted citizenship to nearly 196,000 Ukrainians. Moscow plans to grant one million citizenships to people in these areas by the end of 2020,
Russian President Vladimir Putin defended the move by saying there was nothing wrong in granting citizenship to the people of Eastern Ukraine and cited the example of countries like Poland and Romania which also grant citizenship on the basis of ethnicity.
At the end of a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un Putin told the reporters "How are Russians in Ukraine worse than Romanians, Poles or Hungarians? I don't see anything unusual here."
The move, however, has drawn criticism from Ukraine and the European Union. It also dashed hopes of reviving the Russia-Ukraine peace talks that have stalled since 2015.
Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the new President of Ukraine who was less confrontational towards Russia during his campaign said “Unfortunately, this decree does not bring us closer to the ultimate goal of a ceasefire.” He further stated “These actions are yet more confirmation for the world community of Russia’s true role as an aggressor state, which is waging a war against Ukraine.”
Pavlo Klimkin, Ukraine’s Foreign Minister termed it a “continuation of aggression and interference in our internal affairs.” He was seen advising people in a twitter post that Russia had deprived them of the present and was now trying to trespass on their future.
Ukraine warned that it would not recognize the passport in the event of its usage for crossing the border. The then Prime Minister of the country, Volodymyr Groysman wrote on Twitter,” I emphasize that we will never recognize the citizenship issued by the aggressor country” and termed the passports as a “flagrant violation of all rights and morals”.
The Deputy Foreign Minister of Ukraine targeted the timing of the announcement and said that it was a challenge “not only for Kyiv but Berlin, Paris, Brussels and Washington”.
The EU also stated that it was against the spirit and the objectives of the Minsk peace accords signed by Russia and Ukraine in 2015. Federica Mogherini, a spokeswoman for the EU’s top diplomat, said the distribution of Russian passports was "another attack on Ukraine's sovereignty by Russia."
Putin’s move to grant passports in Eastern Ukraine has been cited as Russia’s unwillingness towards granting Ukraine full control over the Russian occupied regions. It indicates Moscow’s intentions to increase Russian influence in the country and hence weaken the sovereignty of Ukraine as a nation.
It appears that Russia has now weaponised the passport in its six-year long undeclared war with Ukraine in a hope that this will vastly improve its claim of working to protect the interest of Russian citizens in the disputed region of Eastern Ukraine.