(CNSNews.com) – The U.S. Embassy in Kyiv has condemned a decision by Russian President Vladimir Putin to offer Russian citizenship to Ukrainians in separatist-controlled regions in the east of the country, calling the move “absurd and destabilizing.”
Signed into law just days after Ukrainians voted a new president into office, Putin’s decree simplifies the process of applying for Russian citizenship for people living permanently in Donetsk and Lugansk, self-proclaimed “people’s republics” controlled by pro-Russian separatists.
The decree posted on the Kremlin website cited to need to protect the “human and citizens’ rights and freedoms” of the inhabitants of the breakaway regions.
It is in line with new amendments to Russia’s citizenship law, which took effect last month, allowing the president to define categories of foreigners who “for humanitarian purposes” are able to apply for citizenship despite not meeting customary requirements such as having resided in Russia uninterruptedly for five years.
In 2014 Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea after a referendum rejected by the international community. Ukraine’s outgoing President Petro Poroshenko said in a statement on Facebook that with its decree Moscow was paving the way to annex the eastern regions too – or to create a Russian enclave inside the borders of Ukraine.
He urged the international community not to allow that to happen, to “severely condemn the destructive and criminal actions of the Russian authorities, and to strengthen the regime of international sanctions.”
In a tweet Wednesday the U.S. Embassy made clear the administration’s rejection of Russia’s interference in Donetsk and Lugansk, stressing that those areas, as well as Crimea, are sovereign Ukrainian territory.
“Crimea is Ukraine. Donetsk is Ukraine. Luhansk is Ukraine,” it said. “We condemn Russia’s recent absurd and destabilizing decree about Russian passports for Donetsk and Luhansk residents and affirm our strong support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus called the Russian step “highly provocative” and a serious obstacle to implementing the 2015 Minsk ceasefire agreements between Moscow and Kyiv, which Ortagus said “call for the full restoration of Ukrainian government control over eastern Ukraine.”
Criticism also came from President-elect Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who called Moscow’s actions “yet another clear confirmation for the global community of Russia’s true role as an aggressor state leading a war against Ukraine.”
Zelenskiy, an actor and comedian with no political experience, defeated Poroshenko in a landslide runoff election Sunday, winning more than 70 percent of votes cast. He is scheduled to take office in early June.
Ukraine’s foreign ministry called for stepped up international diplomatic and economic pressure on Russia, and decried what it called a “practice of illegal ‘passportization’ of territories that Russia has illegally occupied.”
“This strategy has been applied by the Kremlin in other protracted conflicts as a legal and humanitarian pretext for further aggression,” it said in a statement sent to U.N. secretary-general Antonio Guterres.
Ukraine’s National Security Council secretary Oleksandr Turchinov raised the same concern, saying in a statement that Putin was creating “legal conditions for the official use of the Russian armed forces against Ukraine.”
“This is due to the fact that Russian legislation allows the use of armed forces to protect Russian citizens outside Russian territory,” he said.
Those views underline concerns that granting Russian citizenship to Ukrainians in the two regions could not just complicate future efforts to end a conflict which has claimed some 13,000 lives but also provide the Kremlin with justification to take military action there in future to protect its citizens.
The recent history of another former Soviet republic illustrates the potential danger.
When Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, it said it was meeting its legal obligation to protect its citizens in two separatist regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, after Georgia’s government tried to rein them in.
That population of Russian citizens had been artificially created in previous years when Moscow handed out citizenship to the inhabitants of the breakaway regions – using a simplified citizenship acquisition procedure – in a bid to weaken Georgia’s sovereignty.
After the brief war, Russia recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent countries, costing Georgia one-fifth of its territory.
Keeping both Georgia and Ukraine out of the expanding NATO fold has been a priority for the Kremlin, and stoking separatism in both has helped to keep them destabilized.
In the spring of 2014, as the Ukraine crisis escalated, Putin announced that Russia would protect Russians wherever they live.
An estimated 2.3 million people live in the Donetsk “people’s republic” and 1.5 million people live in the Luhansk “people’s republic.”