On July 12, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia is at war with the Ukrainian government, not the Ukrainian people, who he claimed want to become Russian citizens.
Peskov's comments came in reference to a new decree that his boss, President Vladimir Putin, issued on July 11, simplifying procedures for Ukrainian citizens to obtain Russian citizenship.
Before February, only residents of Ukraine's occupied Donbas region in the East could apply for Russian citizenship, but Russia has been gradually broadening the geographic eligibility to new areas as its invasion forces advance. In May, Moscow added Ukraine’s Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions.
“The special military operation is not against the Ukrainians. It’s against the regime, while at the same time, very many Ukrainians actually want to become citizens of the Russian Federation,” Peskov said.
That is false. In fact, Russia has caused death and dislocation across the country, killing thousands of Ukrainian civilians and forcing millions to flee. Polls show Ukrainians increasingly and overwhelmingly oppose Russia.
‘Regime’ in Kyiv
Pitting the Ukrainian people against their government has been a key Russian propaganda goal since even before Moscow began intervening in Ukraine in 2014. Such disinformation only intensified after Russia launched its full-fledged military invasion of Ukraine on February 24. The Kremlin has persistently portrayed Ukraine's government as an “illegal regime.”
In fact, both the Ukrainian parliament and President Volodomyr Zelenskyy were chosen in free and democratic elections. The Ukrainian state is a legitimate government, and Russia is fighting not a "regime” but political leaders and a military that have broad and rising popular support.
Independent observers and leaders of Western countries recognized Ukraine’s April 2019 presidential election as having been conducted in accordance with democratic standards. The European Union praised “the strong attachment to democracy and the rule of law that the people of Ukraine have demonstrated throughout the electoral process.”
At the time, even Russian officials recognized the election as legitimate. “Moscow respects the choice of the Ukrainian people, especially since this choice is very obvious,” Peskov said on April 22, 2019.
Ukraine held elections for its parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, in July 2019. Independent observers, Western nations and Moscow again recognized that vote as legitimate.
“We expect that the credit of trust from the Ukrainian people, received by the new parliament, will be wisely used by them for peaceful purposes and for the benefit of the population of the entire country,” Russia’s Foreign Ministry said on July 22, 2019.
Russia's ministry also observed then that “nationalist forces did not receive broad support from the population of Ukraine” in the voting. That view sharply contrasts with recent statements by Russian authorities that their aim in the war is to “liberate the country from the Nazis” who had “seized” it.
Zelenskyy’s public approval rating reached record heights following Russia’s invasion, with more than 90% of the Ukrainians polled by the Ratings Sociological Group in late February expressing support for him.
Another poll by the Ratings Sociological Group, conducted between March 30-April 2 for the International Republican Institute’s (IRI) Center for Insights in Survey Research (CISR) in Ukraine, found that 94 percent of Ukrainians strongly approved or somewhat approved of Zelenskyy’s job performance. (The IRI is a nonpartisan pro-democracy group in Washington, D.C.)
A survey conducted by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology from May 2-11 found that 85% of Ukrainians trusted Zelenskyy, and 97% trusted Ukraine’s armed forces.
‘We are not fighting Ukrainians’
On July 7, Putin said, “We have heard many times that the West wants to fight us to the last Ukrainian. This is a tragedy for the Ukrainian people, but it seems that everything is heading toward this.”
The United States and NATO defense allies are providing Ukraine with unprecedented military aid to defend against Russia. In Ukraine, Putin’s remarks were understood as a threat to subjugate the country at any cost.
In the March-April poll for IRI, 92 percent said their opinion of Russia had “worsened a lot or somewhat worsened” since the February invasion.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) reports 11,544 civilian casualties – 5,024 killed and 6,520 injured – in Ukraine between February 24 and July 11. The real toll could be much higher, given that the U.N. data only includes verified casualties.
More than 9 million Ukrainians have fled their homes, two-thirds of them departing to other countries. The Russian military has shelled Ukrainian evacuation corridors and hubs that are part of the international humanitarian effort to aid Ukrainian refugees.
As of July, the Ukrainian government estimated that 1.6 million Ukrainian civilians, including more than 260,000 children, had been forcibly relocated from Ukraine to Russia.
“Some of these children have reportedly been abducted by Russian authorities from Ukraine’s orphanages and transferred to Russia for adoption by Russian families,” said Courtney Austrian, deputy chief of the U.S. Mission to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.
Ukrainians in the occupied territories are not flocking to obtain Russian citizenship. When, on June 11, Moscow launched a campaign to distribute Russian passports in the temporarily occupied Ukrainian city of Kherson, only 23 people took up the offer, state news agency RIA Novosti reported.
Russian occupation authorities claimed more than 10,000 applied. On June 16, occupation authorities in the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions announced that all children born after February 24 would automatically become citizens of the Russian Federation.
Yury Sobolevsky, first deputy head of the Kherson Regional Council, called the move “criminal and legally null and void.”