Russian President Vladimir Putin signed an order simplifying the procedure for obtaining a Russian passport for residents of separatist-controlled eastern Ukraine, prompting calls from Kiev for more international sanctions.
The decree, which was published on the Kremlin’s website, states that some residents in the parts of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions that are under separatist control will have their applications considered in less than three months
The decision could escalate the five-year-old war between Ukrainian troops and Russian-backed forces that has killed 13,000 people despite a notional ceasefire signed in 2015.
Russia’s move on Wednesday is an early test for the Ukrainian president-elect, Volodymyr Zelensky, who won a landslide victory in Sunday’s presidential election and has pledged to find a peaceful solution to the conflict.
Zelensky said Putin’s action showed Russia was waging war in Ukraine and brought the two sides no closer to peace. He called for the international community to threaten Russia with more sanctions. Outgoing President Petro Poroshenko said Russia might try to annex the Donbass region.
“Russia, through this highly provocative action, is intensifying its assault on Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” the US State Department said in a statement.
Rebellion broke out against Ukrainian government rule in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in 2014. Moscow provided military help for the separatists, according to reports, although Russian officials have denied providing material support.
Plans have been in the works for several months to streamline the issuing of Russian passports to residents of the two regions, according to sources close to the separatist administrations. If those plans had been announced before the Ukrainian election, it could have bolstered the chances of Poroshenko, the candidate Moscow least wanted to win.
“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 urged residents not to apply for Russian passports and informed the United Nations about Russia’s move. Kiev also asked the European Union to take “prompt and decisive” action.
Only holders of ID cards issued by the separatists will be eligible for the expedited procedure offered by Putin. Separatist authorities said on Wednesday that they had issued about 300,000 such ID cards in the area with an estimated population of 3.7 million.
Swaths of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions are now under the de facto control of the Moscow-backed rebels, while Ukraine says it is determined to reassert its control, a position backed by most Western countries.
Zelensky’s office said his priority was achieving peace but called Russia‘s actions “another evident confirmation for the world community of Russia‘s true role as an aggressor state, which is waging a war against Ukraine”, according to a statement.
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 US, the EU and Russia will be closely watching Zelensky’s foreign policy pronouncements to see if and how he might try to end the conflict.
Immediately after Zelensky’s victory, the Kremlin said it was premature to talk of Putin congratulating Zelensky or the possibility of the two leaders working together.
Zelensky has pledged to keep Ukraine on a pro-Western course while sounding less emphatic than Poroshenko about possible plans for the country of 42 million people to join the EU or NATO one day.