Russia Tests New Ukrainian President-elect with Passports for Separatists
The Interior Ministry of the Russian Federation confirmed on April 29, 2019 that it has opened the first processing center for issuing Russian passports to residents of rebel-held areas of eastern Ukraine. The announcement follows the April 24 signing of a decree by Russian President Vladimir Putin — which simplified the process of acquiring Russian passports and citizenship for people residing in separatist-controlled areas of Ukraine in order to “protect the human and civil rights and freedoms” of the 3.7 million residents therein — and the sweeping election victory of television comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy to the Ukrainian presidency on April 23.
The ongoing terse (if not openly hostile) relationship between Russia and Ukraine stems from Ukrainian domestic unrest in late 2013 that blossomed into full scale conflict in 2014 and saw ample Russian military intervention. The most notable example was the internationally condemned invasion and annexation of Crimea in March 2014 as well as the matériel and personnel support for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, who formed two breakaway republics in the Donbass region amid an escalating war.
After pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted by the Ukrainian parliament in February 2014 as one of the opening acts of the crisis, Ukrainian voters — excluding those in Crimea and most of the Donbass region owing to Russian annexation and threats of violence by pro-Russia separatists, respectively — elected recognized pro-European Union (EU) oligarch Petro Poroshenko in the May 2014 presidential election for a five-year term.
Since then, Poroshenko presided over a country wracked by significant domestic divisions in the face of a looming foreign threat. While Poroshenko initially sought a provisional peace deal to quell the conflict in eastern Ukraine, the breakdown of several ceasefires and increasing Russian influence in the region led Poroshenko to adopt more hardline rhetoric against the rebels and Moscow while calling for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to deploy forces to assist Ukraine in its stand against Russia.
Relations between Moscow and Kiev dipped to new lows this past year owing to disputes over the subordinate status of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Russia’s de facto blockade against Ukrainian products, and a high-strung incident between naval craft in the Black Sea.
In the first round of the Ukrainian presidential election held on March 31 this year, incumbent President Poroshenko fared poorly, garnering almost 16 percent of the vote to political newcomer and television comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s 30 percent and ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s 13 percent. As no candidate garnered an outright majority, Zelenskiy faced Poroshenko in a second round on April 21, which delivered an electoral landslide victory of 73 percent of the vote for Zelenskiy to Poroshenko’s paltry 24 percent.
In a move widely seen as an open provocation to test the new Ukrainian president-elect, Russian President Putin promulgated the decree simplifying the process to acquire a passport for residents in pro-Russian rebel-held areas of Ukraine days after Zelenskiy’s victory. Putin stated that “we are far from trying to provoke anyone” and citing other Eastern European countries’ grants of citizenship to ethnic expatriates as the example Russia was following. Ukrainian law currently does not permit dual citizenship.
After Putin stated on April 27 that his government was “generally thinking to provide a simplified citizenship procedure to Ukrainian citizens,” Ukrainian President-elect Zelenskiy finally responded with a defiant Facebook post on the same day stressing the differences between Kiev and Moscow, rejecting Putin’s citizenship offer, and asserting that Ukraine would “provide Ukrainian citizenship to representatives of all peoples who suffer from authoritarian and corrupt regimes. In the first place — the Russians, who today suffer probably the most.”
Zelenskiy’s sentiments join incumbent President Poroshenko’s April 24 call for additional sanctions against Russia, condemnations by the EU and the US, and statements made by several countries’ representatives during the April 25 meeting of the United Nations Security Council that drew attention to Russia’s use of “passportization” in other conflicts as a means of legitimizing military occupation and “creeping annexation.”
Zelenskiy is slated to assume the office of President of Ukraine by June.