ST PETERSBURG — Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed an order simplifying the procedure for obtaining a Russian passport for residents of separatist-controlled eastern Ukraine, prompting an angry response from Kiev.
Five years of war between Ukrainian troops and Russian-backed forces have killed 13,000 people despite a notional ceasefire signed in 2015.
Russia’s move is an early test for the Ukrainian president-elect Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who won a landslide victory in Sunday’s presidential election and has pledged to find a peaceful solution to the conflict. There was no immediate comment from Zelenskiy’s team.
“We have no desire to create problems for the new Ukrainian leadership, but to tolerate a situation in which people living in the territory of Donetsk and Luhansk republic are generally deprived of any civil rights, this is already crossing the line from the point of view of human rights,” Putin said.
Ukraine Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin denounced the move on Twitter as a “continuation of aggression and interference in our internal affairs”, urging Ukrainians living under occupation not to apply for Russian passports.
Ukraine said it had informed the United Nations about Russia’s move and also asked the EU to take “prompt and decisive” action.
Rebellions broke out against Ukrainian government rule in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in 2014.
Moscow provided military help for the separatists, according to evidence gathered by Reuters, though Russian officials have denied providing material support.
Swathes of the two regions are now under the de facto control of the Moscow-backed rebels, while Kiev says it is determined to re-assert its control, a position backed by most Western countries.
Oleksandr Turchynov, the secretary of Ukraine’s national security council, said Russia’s move was intended to give Moscow legal cover for deploying its troops to eastern Ukraine on the pretext of protecting Russian citizens.
Russia has consistently denied Western and Ukrainian accusations that it sends troops and heavy weapons to fight Ukrainian forces in the region.
Relations between Ukraine and Russia plunged after the Maidan street protests in Kiev in 2014 prompted a Kremlin-backed Ukrainian president to flee into exile.
Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula a month later in March 2014, triggering Western sanctions.
The United States, the European Union and Russia will be closely watching Zelenskiy’s foreign policy pronouncements to see if and how he might try to end the conflict.
Immediately after Zelenskiy’s victory, the Kremlin had said it was premature to talk of Putin congratulating Zelenskiy or the possibility of the two leaders working together.
Zelenskiy has pledged to keep Ukraine on a pro-Western course while sounding less emphatic than his predecessor President Petro Poroshenko about possible plans for the country of 42 million people to one day join the EU or NATO. — Reuters