On April 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law simplifying the process of obtaining Russian citizenship for residents of the Russian-controlled territories in Ukraine known as the “Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics.” Ukraine and its allies, including the United States, strongly condemned the measure. In justifying the move, Putin said that residents of these “republics” were “generally deprived of any civil rights.”
Putin did not mention his own government’s culpability in creating the deadly conflict in eastern Ukraine, which has resulted in the human rights problems to which he referred.The territories the Russian president referred to have not been under Ukrainian government control since the spring of 2014, when Russia used military force to establish the so-called “republics” in Donetsk and Luhansk. Polygraph.info has documented how Russia initiated the war in 2014 and, according to international authorities, continues to exercise control over part of Ukraine’s Donbas.
There have been human rights complaints on the Ukrainian government-controlled side, but these mainly concern the issue of requiring pensioners to move to government-controlled territory in order to receive their pensions -- a side effect of cutting the occupied-territories off from the banking system. Human Rights Watch (HRW) noted that even Ukrainian courts had found these rules to be “discriminatory,” but that authorities refused to comply with their rulings on the matter.
However, Putin could not reasonably claim pensions as a reason for his action on Russian passports, because Russia’s Pension Fund later announced that recipients of these passports would not be eligible to collect any pensions unless they permanently relocated to Russia.
The day after signing the law, Putin was asked about it during his meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un in Vladivostok. He told reporters that the measure wasn’t designed to “provoke anyone,” and pointed out that countries such as Hungary and Romania had also given out passports to people of their respective nationalities living outside their borders. According to Putin, no one had a “negative reaction” to these cases. There are several problems with this defense, however.
First of all, some countries reacted negatively to the actions Putin cited.For example, last October, Ukraine expelled a Hungarian consul for giving out Hungarian passports. Secondly, Russia has a history of distributing passports to citizens of other countries for geopolitical ends. The most commonly-cited example involved the two breakaway Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In 2008, then-President Dmitry Medvedev partly used defense of Russian citizens to justify going to war with Georgia. Thus, there is a fear that Putin will use “passportization” in Donbas as a pretext for open military intervention there and possibly in other parts of Ukraine.
Another question about Putin’s claim is that neither the new legislation, nor the Russian law on citizenship to which it refers, mention Russian ethnicity, or any ethnic group at all. The Russian government’s official position is that the territories of the so-called “Donetsk and Luhansk” people’s republics are in fact Ukrainian territory, that the conflict is a “civil war” or internal matter for Ukraine, and that Russia, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, is not a party to the conflict. These contradictory positions beg the question of to whom exactly Putin would be granting passports, and for what reasons.
It’s also important to note that a Russian passport is no guarantee of basic civil rights. In the World Report 2019, published this past January, HRW found grave violations in Russia, ranging from torture in the prison system to crackdowns on freedom of speech and religion. Polygraph.info has covered the persecution in Russia of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose church is banned, as well as restrictions on freedom of speech. Recently, a Russian citizen was fined for insulting Putin online. Taking this into account, it is at best misleading to offer Russian passports to residents of these Russian-controlled “republics” in Ukraine as a guarantee their human rights.