The U.S. State Department has slammed an order by Russian President Vladimir Putin to simplify the procedure for people living in parts of eastern Ukraine held by Russia-backed separatists to obtain Russian citizenship.
"Russia, through this highly provocative action, is intensifying its assault on Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity," the State Department said in a statement on April 24.
Putin's decree was published on the Kremlin website on April 24, drawing a swift and angry response from Kyiv and criticism from the West.
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."
Earlier in the day the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv posted on Twitter that the decree was "absurd and destabilizing" and reaffirmed "our strong support for Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity."
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."
Putin's order and its timing seemed designed to put pressure on Kyiv just three days after Ukraine elected a new president, opening the door to potential changes in a relationship severely damaged for the past five years by Russia's seizure of Crimea and support for the forces who hold parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces in eastern Ukraine.
Ukraine's President-elect Volodymyr Zelenskiy issued a statement condemning Russia as an "occupying state" and an "aggressor country that is waging war against Ukraine." He called for "increased diplomatic and sanctions pressure on the Russian Federation."
The decree says its goal is "to protect human and civil rights" and that the move was "based on universal principles and norms of the international law."
Putin aide Vladislav Surkov called it "extremely important" and said that Russia was carrying out its "duty to Russian-speaking and Russian-thinking people who have found themselves in a very grave situation" due to what he called "the repressive actions of the Kyiv regime."
Denis Pushilin, the self-proclaimed head of the Moscow-backed separatist formation in Donetsk, called Putin's decree "a milestone in the history of our young states."
"We have been waiting for this step for a long time and are immensely glad that this day has come," he was quoted as saying by the press agency of the de facto authorities in Donetsk.
Speaking hours after the decree was published, Putin said that Moscow has "no desire to create problems for the new Ukrainian authorities" and called it "a purely humanitarian matter," contending that people in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions "are deprived of all possible civil rights."
But Kyiv rejects such claims, blaming Russia for the problems faced by residents of the war-ravaged regions.
Oleksandr Turchynov, secretary of Ukraine's National Security Council, issued a statement saying that "Putin is creating legal conditions for an official application of armed forces against Ukraine."
"This is related to Russian legislation allowing the use of armed forces for protecting Russian citizens outside of Russia," he added.
Turchnyov called for "increasing sanctions pressure on the aggressor state."
Poroshenko's statement made the same argument, saying Putin's decree "is actually about the Kremlin's preparations for the next step of aggression against our state – the annexation of the Ukrainian Donbas or the creation of a Russian enclave in Ukraine."
He said Ukraine had initiated a discussion of the matter in the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and the European Union.
Shortly after the decree was published, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin tweeted that "Russia's decision to issue passports in the occupied Ukrainian territories is the continuation of aggression and interference in our internal affairs," adding: "This is a new 'passport' stage of the occupation of the Donbas."
Speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, a Western diplomat involved in negotiations related to the conflict in eastern Ukraine told RFE/RL that Putin's decree is "a highly provocative step that undermines efforts to deescalate the situation" in the Donbas.
According to the decree, permanent residents of "certain districts of Ukraine's Donetsk and Luhansk regions" -- wording apparently referring to territory held by the Russia-backed separatists, which includes the two provincial capitals -- "have the right to apply for citizenship of the Russian Federation [and obtain it] in a simplified way."
The decree states that decisions on citizenship for people from the areas in question must be made by Russian authorities within three months after their applications are filed and all necessary documents are collected, and that citizenship must be granted immediately after the decision to do so is made.
Only holders of identification documents issued by the separatist authorities will be eligible for the expedited citizenship. The de facto separatist formations have said about 300,000 such identification cards have been issued.
Putin's order came after amendments to the Russian law on citizenship allowing the president to grant citizenship to foreigners "in a simplified way" were approved by lawmakers in both houses of the Russian parliament in December and came into force on March 29.
Russia's moves to grant citizenship to residents of other former Soviet republics, and especially breakaway regions that are supported by Moscow, have often been described by critics as a way to increase the size of Moscow's footprint and gain additional levers of influence in those countries.
In 2002, during Putin's first term, Moscow began issuing Russian passports to residents of Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia -- first laying groundwork for the move by adopting a law allowing Russian citizenship to be granted to people who did not receive citizenship of any country after the 1991 Soviet collapse.
When Russian troops rolled into Georgia in August 2008, at the start of a five-day war that strengthened Moscow's grip over South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the number of Russian passport holders in the two separatist regions was 85 and 90 percent, respectively.
Russia recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent countries after the war, leaving large numbers of troops in both regions. Pro-Kremlin analysts and other defenders of Moscow's actions say that Russia was protecting its citizens when it launched the military operation. Meanwhile, Russian media reports have said that almost half the residents of Moldova's Moscow-backed breakaway region of Transdniester are Russian passport holders.
Putin's decree came three days after Zelenskiy, a comedian and political novice who critics doubt will be able to stand up to Putin, defeated Poroshenko by a massive margin in a presidential runoff. He is to be inaugurated in early June.
Putin and other Russian officials had repeatedly denounced Poroshenko, who made a stronger army and resistance to Russian interference major parts of his policy and his reelection campaign.
Poroshenko was elected in May 2014, after Moscow-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych was pushed from power that February by a protest movement known as the Maidan after he scrapped plans for closer ties with the European Union and vowed to boost trade with Russia.
Shortly after Yanukovych stepped down and fled to Russia, Moscow seized control of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and fomented unrest in the Donbas, where it has backed separatist forces in a war that has killed some 13,000 people and continues despite a cease-fire and peace deal known as the Minsk Accords.
Russia denies involvement in the conflict despite evidence Kyiv and Western governments say is incontrovertible that it has provided weapons, troops, and other support.