Putin Considers Passports for Ukrainian Rebels, Fueling Tensions

Stepan Kravchenko and Ilya Arkhipov
Putin Considers Passports for Ukrainian Rebels, Fueling Tensions

(Bloomberg) -- Russia may offer passports to people living in breakaway regions of eastern Ukraine, according to lawmakers, a move that would reignite tensions in the conflict with the government in Kiev that’s backed by the U.S. and Europe.

“All the instruments” are ready for providing passports to people in rebel areas of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions and it only requires an order from President Vladimir Putin to start the process, according to Andrei Klimov, a senator on the international affairs committee in Russia’s upper house of parliament.

An order may be signed soon after Sunday’s presidential elections in Ukraine to approve simplified citizenship procedures on “humanitarian” grounds for people in those regions, according to Konstantin Zatulin, first deputy head of the Russian lower house of parliament’s committee on CIS affairs, Eurasian integration and ties with compatriots. “This should have been done a long time ago,” he said.

The move threatens to ratchet up confrontation between Russia and Ukraine, which has repeatedly accused Putin of sending troops and weapons to aid separatists in a war that’s killed 13,000 people in the past five years. The Kremlin denies Russian forces are involved. The U.S. and the European Union imposed sanctions on Russia over the conflict, which erupted after the 2014 revolution that swept Ukraine’s pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych from power.

Escalation Risk

Putin responded to the revolution by annexing Crimea, saying he was protecting ethnic Russians living there, and backing the eastern Ukrainian rebels. A 2015 peace accord negotiated in Minsk, Belarus, by the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France has failed to resolve the conflict, which a United Nations official warned in February is at risk of escalating after years of low-level clashes.

Rebel officials in the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics say about 3.6 million people live in the areas under their control. By offering them Russian citizenship, Putin may be repeating a tactic used in the breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Thousands of people held Russian passports in the two territories before a 2008 war between Georgia and Russia, which justified its military intervention by saying it was acting to protect its citizens.

“This question should be decided” once the outcome of the Ukrainian election between incumbent Petro Poroshenko and comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy is known, Zatulin said. “There’s not long to wait,” he said.

‘Another Road’

Russia may be airing the proposal to raise pressure on Poroshenko ahead of the election, with the latest polls showing Zelenskiy on course to win. While Poroshenko has built much of his campaign on the conflict with Putin, Zelenskiy has been less openly critical though their policies for resolving the crisis are similar.

It’s a signal to both candidates to take steps as president that encourage people in the breakaway territories to return to Ukraine “or another road opens up” that includes making it easier for them to become Russian citizens, said Oleg Morozov, a Russian senator and former Kremlin official.

The decree may be issued immediately after the elections unless a decision is made to wait and see what measures a new president may take to try to resolve the conflict, said Leonid Kalashnikov, head of the CIS affairs committee in Russia’s lower house of parliament, according to Kommersant.

Issuing passports to separatists in eastern Ukraine “is an inevitable measure,” said Alexey Chesnakov, a former Russian presidential administration official who’s now a consultant to the Kremlin on Ukraine. With people in rebel areas under blockade by the authorities in Kiev, Russian passports are “the only way to help people living in these territories to fully realize their civil rights,” he said.

--With assistance from Daryna Krasnolutska.

To contact the reporters on this story: Stepan Kravchenko in Moscow at skravchenko@bloomberg.net;Ilya Arkhipov in Moscow at iarkhipov@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory L. White at gwhite64@bloomberg.net, Tony Halpin

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