Apr 26, 2019

Putin turns to Russian passports to test the West in Ukraine

A polling station in Ukraine's Donetsk region during the second-round presidential election on April 21. Photo: Valentin Sprinchak/TASS via Getty Images

Ukraine's election of comedian and political novice Volodymyr Zelensky as president marks a historic, peaceful transfer of democratic power yet runs the risk that an untested leader could invite more assertiveness from Moscow.

The big picture: A few days after last weekend's elections in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin granted an expedited path to Russian citizenship for residents of the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics, where Russian forces have waged slow-burning warfare since 2014. The move seems intended to consolidate Russian control of the contested territories while forcing the Ukraine's president-elect and the West to respond.

Flashback: This follows a Russian attack last fall on Ukrainian vessels in the Kerch Strait, in which Russia arrested 24 Ukrainian sailors it continues to hold in custody. In March, the U.S., EU, Canada and Australia imposed additional sanctions on Russia for that attack.

Context: Russia has also used "passportization" in Georgia and Crimea. The tactic aims to make the long-term resolution of the conflict and return of contested territories more difficult.

  • In the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, Russia is contravening the Minsk accords — a ceasefire it signed in 2015 with Ukraine, Germany, France and representatives of the so-called People's Republics.
  • The EU and the U.S. have linked sanctions to the Minsk process and the U.S. has dispatched Ambassador Kurt Volker as a special envoy, but those efforts have not ended the impasse or compelled Moscow to fulfill its obligations.

Where it stands: The U.S. and EU have criticized Putin's decree but have not committed to decisive action, such as further sanctions.

  • The EU said that the Kremlin's decision demonstrates the "intention to further destabilize Ukraine and to exacerbate the conflict."
  • In a statement, the U.S. State Department condemned the decision as "highly provocative" and a "serious obstacle to the implementation of the Minsk agreements."
  • The UN Security Council met to discuss the issue on Thursday.

The bottom line: If Russia's latest move against Ukraine goes unpunished, Moscow is likely to see it as carte blanche for further aggressive acts before Ukraine's new government is in place this fall. Western leaders should have learned by now that these destabilizing tactics don't stop in Ukraine, they are part of Russia's larger efforts to undermine democracies around the world.

Alina Polyakova is the David M. Rubenstein Fellow for Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution.

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