Russia defended its decision to recognize documents issued by separatists it backs in eastern Ukraine amid mounting criticism from Western governments that the move undermines prospects for peace in the region.
Both the Kremlin and the Russian Foreign Ministry on February 20 portrayed President Vladimir Putin’s order to recognize documents issued by the separatists as a humanitarian gesture.
The decree "fully complies with international law, which does not prohibit the recognition of documents needed to implement the rights and freedoms granted by the authorities which are not internationally recognized," the ministry said in a statement.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters in a February 20 call that the decree was a "humanitarian" move that did not confer any official recognition of separatists who control areas of Ukraine's eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
Both Peskov and the ministry said blockades organized in Ukraine have prevented citizens in separatist-controlled areas from renewing passports and obtaining other official documents.
Putin’s order, signed February 18, has triggered sharp criticism from Washington and in Europe and came amid escalating violence in eastern Ukraine in recent weeks.
The French Foreign Ministry said in a February 20 statement that it "regrets" Russia’s move and that Paris wants Russia to use its influence over the separatists to guarantee the terms of the peace deal signed to bring an end to the conflict, which has killed more than 9,750 since April 2014.
"It is the only way of ensuring a lasting solution to the crisis in east Ukraine," it said.
Meanwhile Steffen Seibert, a spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, said on February 20 that Russia's recognition of the documents "undermines the unity of Ukraine."
Merkel and French President Francois Hollande brokered the February 2015 peace accord alongside Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Minsk, the capital of Belarus.
The U.S. Embassy in Kyiv on February 19 called Putin's order "alarming and incompatible with the agreed-on goals of the Minsk peace process."
Kyiv, the United States, the EU, and NATO accuse Russia of backing the separatists with weapons, training, and personnel in the conflict, a charge Moscow rejects despite substantial evidence of such support.
With reporting by AP, Reuters, dpa, and AFP