Just three days after the runoff round of the Ukrainian presidential elections, when the Electoral Commission confirmed that incumbent President Petro Poroshenko lost, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree to provide expedited Russian citizenship to Ukrainians living in the “certain areas of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts of Ukraine” (ORDLO) – this is how the occupied territories around the East-Ukrainian cities of Luhansk and Donetsk are officially called.
The decision sparked international outrage and indignation.
The Ukrainian Ministry of foreign affairs in its statement called Putin’s decision “one more deliberate step towards demolishing the Minsk Agreements,” “a blatant interference into internal affairs of Ukraine,” and “Russia’s ongoing attempts at creeping annexation of the Ukrainian Donbas.” The document stated that the move demonstrates “Russia’s intentions to continue its aggression, and evidence the lack of its interest in any de-escalation.”
Moreover, Ukraine outlawed the Russian passports issued for Donbas residents.
The US State Department issued a statement, saying that “Russia, through this highly provocative action, is intensifying its assault on Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
The EU said, “The timing of such a decision immediately after Ukraine’s Presidential election… shows Russia’s intention to further destabilize Ukraine and to exacerbate the conflict.”
Transnistrian and Abkhazian scenarios
There are five Russian-controlled breakaway pseudo-states in the territories of former Soviet republics: the Transnistrian Moldovan Republic (PMR or Transnistria) in Moldova, Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, Luhansk and Donetsk “people’s republics” (“LNR” and “DNR”) in Ukraine. And Russia uses two main scenarios of Russian policies to treat the fake statelets it runs in the foreign neighboring states.
A conventional “Transnistria” is fed with constant promises of reunification with Russia by some minor officials like members of parliament while top Russian authorities stress that such a region remains part of the host state. Meanwhile, a conventional “Abkhazia” is prepared for “independence” behind the official rhetoric of non-interference in internal affairs of the host state; then, Russia declares its recognition of the region as an independent state.
The major steps Russia takes when it follows its Abkhazian scenario are to include the pseudo-state in the ruble zone and to overtly and massively issue Russian passports in the territory.
Transnistria has its own currency not accepted anywhere else (they even have plastic coins). The residents of Moldova’s Transnistrian region may apply for Russian citizenship on usual terms like any other foreigners. Former USSR citizens who remain stateless have the greatest chances to naturalize in Russia, as well as those whose parents or children are Russian nationals or who are married a Russian national.
“At present time, the foreign-policy body of PMR is working towards solving the issue of applying for Russian citizenship by the persons who were born after the collapse of the USSR, i.e. after 26 December 1991 and, thus, not having judicial connection to the Union of SSR (herewith, those who didn’t receive the citizenship of a foreign state after their parents),” the so-called “Ministry of Foreign Affairs of PMR” assures since at least 2015.
In five years since the “people’s republics” were proclaimed in the East-Ukrainian region of Donbas, official Russia treated them by the Transnistria scenario, calling them exclusively as the “certain areas of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts of Ukraine” (ORDLO). This is how the Minsk peace accords label them.
However, there was a policy shift leaning from the Transnistrian to Abkhazian scenario in February 2017: Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree on recognizing “passports” issued by so-called DNR and LNR in Russia. Then “LNR” adopted the Russian ruble as its basic monetary unit (the ruble has been the “official major currency” in both “republics” since 2015).
And now, on 24 April 2019, three days after the runoff round of Ukrainian presidential elections, Putin signed the decree “On defining, for humanitarian purposes, categories of persons entitled to apply for acquiring Russian citizenship in a simplified manner,” which prescribes that persons who permanently reside in certain districts of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions have such a right.
The decision wasn’t sporadic, it is a part of a well-prepared plan as evidenced by further prompt preparations of passport offices in Rostov Oblast, where the passports will be issued, and in ORDLO, where the applications are taken up.
So what is the Russian motivation behind this hostile step and what Russia is going to do next and to gain with it?
Handing out Russian passports means further “protection of citizens”
In 2002-2003, Russia started handing out its international passports to inhabitants of the North-Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Russia didn’t open passport offices in both Abkhazia and S.Ossetia when it flooded the two Georgia’s regions with its IDs. The process was simplified: old USSR-issued passports and required applications were collected locally, then sent to the Russian city of Sochi where Russia prepared the documents and sent them back to the occupied regions.
Later in 2008, when Georgia tried to reclaim control of one of its breakaway regions, Russia claimed that most of the South-Ossetian residents were Russian citizens and invaded Georgia with its regular forces for the “pacification by force” to “protect the Russian citizens.”
Large-scale war or a simple cover for Russian mercenaries
Russia tried to justify its annexation of Crimea by the rhetoric of “protecting the Russian-speakers” and it didn’t work for the international community, unlike the “protection of its citizens” back in 2008 in Georgia. In spring 2014, Russia received the first international Ukraine-related sanctions.
Even 5% of Russian nationals in the population of occupied Donbas would be a convenient causa formalis, a formal cause to justify open large-scale aggression if Ukraine attempts to reclaim the occupied territories by force. It would make no difference if the world swallowed the escalation of Russian aggression like in the Georgian case, or reacted with new sanctions. What matters is that it worked 11 years ago and the Russian authorities may believe that it would work again.
Moreover, if Ukraine won’t attack for a long time, Russia can stage a terror attack against civilians in the Donbas and proclaim the victims Russian citizens retrospectively. Similar provocative attacks already took place back in 2014-2015 when the Russian-hybrid forces bombarded residential areas of the cities they controlled to blame Ukraine in order to gain the loyalty of the residents and to recruit volunteer fighters among the locals.
Another way the Russian passports can serve Russia is by legalizing the Russian mercenaries who are members of the so-called 1st and 2nd Army Corps (“DNR” and “LNR” armies) and of the local special agencies. Russian nationals captured in the Donbas by Ukrainian servicemen starting from early 2015 almost always had no Russian IDs.
This happened because after many Russian active-duty soldiers were captured in summer 2014, Russia changed the policy of using its military forces in eastern Ukraine. Russia started avoiding conscripts and relied on mercenaries. When new Russian soldiers arrive in the Donbas to join the local detachments, the would-be mercenaries leave their Russian IDs in the Russian border city of Novocherkassk, where the staff of Russia’s 8th army is located, and receive local IDs in Luhansk or Donetsk. The 8th army fully controls, supplies and trains both “Army Corps.”
Testing reaction of Ukraine’s President-elect
Putin signed the decree on Russian citizenship for ORDLO residents just days after the final round of the Ukrainian presidential race, when it became clear that Poroshenko wouldn’t be re-elected. This suggests that the Russian passport plan involved overthrowing incumbent President Poroshenko as a pre-condition. Thus, Putin’s further moves or the terms to make them may depend on the reaction of President-elect Zelenskyy.
In their Facebook post, the Zelenskyy team repeated key points of the official statements by the Ukrainian MFA and the incumbent President, calling Russia an aggressor state and hoping that the international community would increase “diplomatic and sanction pressure” on Russia.
In reply, Putin said that his administration considers a plan to ease the process of granting Russian citizenship to all Ukrainians, not only the Donbas residents.
Zelenskyy replied to Putin on Facebook, claiming that not many Ukrainians will be interested in Russian citizenship. Moreover, President-elect promised that Ukraine “will give Ukrainian citizenship to representatives of all people suffering from authoritarian and corrupt regimes, first of all, to Russians who nowadays suffer maybe the most.”
Later on 4 May, asked whether he has propositions for the Rada regarding the Putin’s passport decree, Zelenskyy said, “We’re preparing them. We have several moves, so to say. We should be creative, quick and clever in it, such as we are. Thus we’ll prepare and then show everything.”
Zelenskyy’s reaction suggests he didn’t fully understand the true danger of the Russian move – that it may become the first step of a future full-scale invasion. Sporadic statements wouldn’t beat it, no matter how creative they would be.
Resettling Ukrainians to problematic regions in Russia
Due to a reduced fertility rate, the population of the country is aging and by 2025 Russia may face labor shortages. The only effective way to improve the situation is to use migrant workers and support immigration to Russia.
This is why in 2006, Putin imposed the “State Program for Assisting Compatriots Residing Abroad in Their Voluntary Resettlement in the Russian Federation,” hoping to attract Russian-speaking residents in order to improve the demographic situation in problem regions.
However, before the war in the Donbas, the program was a failure, it peaked with less than 60,000 applicants in 2012:
As Russia unleashed the war in Eastern Ukraine in 2014, the number of program participants exceeded 100,000 in 2014 and peaked in 2015 with 179,660 applicants. Russian media reported citing the country’s Ministry of Internal Affairs, that in 2006-2016, 656,300 people participated in the program, 38.8% of whom were Ukrainians.
The destroyed economy of the Donbas – the pre-war economic powerhouse of entire Eastern Ukraine – produced extra migrant workers for Russia, since many coal mines, and industrial enterprises were shut down and plundered in ORDLO in the years of occupation.
Russia’s ambassador to the EU Vladimir Chizhov stated that over 1,100,000 refugees fled Ukraine to Russia in 2015, some of them applied for Russian citizenship, some for a residence permit, other legally stayed in Russia up to three months, according to the envoy.
In 2017, Ukrainian Parliament’s vice speaker Iryna Herashchenko cited a note by the Russian MFA received on the request of their Ukrainian counterparts. According to its data, about 170,000 Ukrainians were granted Russian citizenship in 2014 – Q3 2016. No information was given, how many of them were Donbas residents, however, it was clear that Donbasites made up the vast majority of them in the period of interest.
In 2014-2016, more than 428,000 applications were submitted under the resettlement program which corresponds with the abovementioned 39%.
Meanwhile, according to the note cited by Ms. Herashchenko, only about 350 Ukrainians received the official refugee status in Russia in 2014 – Q3 2016.
This clearly shows that Russia doesn’t need Ukrainian refugees. First of all, it needs emigrants from Ukraine.
Though, other listed options, such as legalization of Russian mercenaries in the occupied territories and using the “protecting fellow Russian nationals” narrative as a formal cause for open aggression against Ukraine, remain applicable as well.
The fact that Russia avoided making such a well-planned but dangerous move against Ukraine under the Poroshenko presidency may indicate that Russia hopes for a mild, or absent, reaction on its possible open aggression against Ukraine under Zelenskyy.
- Military photos from the Abkhaz-Georgian ceasefire in 1993
- Major Hostile Actions by the Russian Federation against Georgia in 2004-2007
- Ten years after: why Georgia failed to reintegrate its occupied territories
- Ten years after the Russian-Georgian war: the Kremlin’s unlearned lessons
- Georgia’s lessons of peacebuilding now instructive for Ukrainians
- Stages of Russian occupation in a nutshell
- Georgia slams “elections” in occupied Abkhazia as legitimizing Russian aggression