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Putin Rejects Criticism Of His Plan To Grant Russian Citizenship To Ukrainians

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Russian President Vladimir Putin (file photo)

Russian President Vladimir Putin has rejected international criticism about his decision to ease the process of granting Russian citizenship to Ukrainians in territory of eastern Ukraine that is held by Russia-backed separatists.

Putin told journalists in Vladivostok on April 25 that Kyiv's objections to his decree were "strange."

He defended the move, announced on April 24, by claiming that his decree was similar to policies in European Union member states like Romania and Hungary that grant citizenship to "their own ethnic kin living outside their borders."

"How are Russians living in Ukraine worse than Romanians...or Hungarians? Or Ukrainians who live there but feel an unbreakable link with Russia" because of family ties or "other considerations," Putin said.

"I see nothing unusual here," he added.

However, Putin's decree makes no reference to ethnicity, background, or self-identification. Its wording suggests that anyone living in the separatist-held parts of Ukraine's Donetsk and Luhansk regions can apply.

The decree drew a swift and angry response from Kyiv, the United States, Britain, and the European Union.

In a joint statement on April 25, France and Germany -- the European guarantors of the 2015 Minsk agreements -- said Putin's decree "goes against the spirit and aims" of the Minsk process, which seeks to establish a stable cease-fire in the conflict in parts of eastern Ukraine's Donbas region and then proceed to a political settlement.

"This is the opposite of the urgently necessary contribution toward de-escalation," the statement said.

European Commission spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic said the decree was "another attack on Ukraine's sovereignty by Russia."

"We expect Russia to refrain from actions that are against the Minsk agreements and impede the full reintegration of the non-government-controlled areas into Ukraine," she said.

One day earlier, Ukraine's foreign minister called it "aggression and interference" in Kyiv's affairs and a Western diplomat told RFE/RL it was a "highly provocative step" that would undermine the situation in the war-ravaged region known as the Donbas.

President Petro Poroshenko said that with this decree "Russia is torpedoing the peace process in the Donbas."

Ukraine's mission to the United Nations posted on Facebook that Kyiv had "asked that the UN Security Council call a session to discuss Russia's brazen decision to issue Russian passports in the temporarily occupied Ukrainian territory."

The U.S. State Department also criticized Russia's move, saying Moscow "through this highly provocative action, is intensifying its assault on Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity."

Frozen Conflicts

Critics point to other frozen conflicts in former Soviet republics where Russia has granted citizenship to residents of separatist-held territory in order to choreograph demographic changes over time and justify future military operations.

In 2002, the Kremlin began granting Russian citizenship to residents of Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia -- a policy that helped raise the number of Russian passport holders there from about 20 percent to more than 85 percent of the population.

Then, when Russia went to war against Georgia in August 2008, the Kremlin justified its deployment of Russian military forces in Abkhazia and South Ossetia by saying those forces were needed to protect Russia citizens in the separatist regions.

Russian media reports say Russia has also issued its passports to nearly half of the residents of Moldova’s Moscow-backed breakaway region of Transdniester.

That policy has raised concerns in Chisinau that the Kremlin may use a similar argument of defending its citizens in order to justify future Russian military operations in Transdniester.

Russia has maintained a "peacekeeping" force of 1,200 troops in the Transdniester region along the border with southeastern Ukraine since they were deployed there in 1992 in support of Transdniester separatists who were fighting against Moldovan government forces.

NATO describes Russia's protracted military presence in Moldova's frozen conflict as illegal.

NATO and the United Nations General Assembly have both urged Russia to withdraw its military forces from the breakaway Moldovan territory.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Ukrainian, Georgian, and Moldovan services, Reuters, and AP
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