KYIV -- Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has called Moscow’s recent move to distribute Russian passports to residents in the eastern Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk -- jointly known as the Donbas -- "a big problem" and the first step toward
the annexation of the area.
Speaking at a wide ranging press conference on May 20 to mark his second year in office, Zelenskiy said resolving the ongoing conflict between Russia-backed separatists and Ukrainian armed forces in the Donbas, the "de-occupation" of Russia-annexed Crimea, and the continuation of the fight against oligarchs remain his priorities.
"This is definitely the first step, because the same thing happened once in Crimea, Crimea residents were given Russian passports. This is a big problem," Zelenskiy said during the three-hour news conference.
According to the official TASS news agency, more than 527,000 Russian passports have been distributed in the Donbas since April 2019.
Relations between Moscow and Kyiv collapsed after Russia annexed the Ukrainian region of Crimea in 2014 and Russia-backed separatists took control of a chunk of eastern Ukraine that same year.
They have worsened in recent months after the two countries blamed each other for an increase in fighting in eastern Ukraine, and Russia -- in what it called a defensive exercise -- massed troops on its western border with Ukraine and in Crimea.
Zelenskiy said his government has plans on how to resolve the conflict in the Donbas and called again for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the issue to be held either in the conflict zone or "a neutral territory."
He lauded Ukraine's western partners for helping ease tensions in relations between the two countries and urged them to keep up their pressure on the Kremlin.
"I held talks with [French] President [Emmanuel] Macron, a video talk with [German] Chancellor Angela Merkel and I feel their support... I think they are slightly softening their positions toward Russia... due to the economic situation and pressure inside their countries and from businesses," Zelenskiy said.
Zelenskiy expressed concern over reports that Washington plans to lift sanctions against companies involved in completing the North Stream 2 energy pipeline for Russian natural gas in Germany, saying there is a risk that this could hand the Kremlin "a serious geopolitical victory" and lead to "a new redistribution of power and influence" in the region.
The Ukrainian president also vowed to continue his efforts to eradicate corruption among officials and pursue the "de-oligarchization" of Ukraine.
He said he will free the country of influence from oligarchs, one of the first steps of which was to impose sanctions against Russia-friendly tycoon and lawmaker Viktor Medvedchuk, who was placed under house arrest on a high treason charge several days ago.
"The era of Medvedchuk is on its way out, the era of bribes and corruption is on its way out... We are cleaning [the country] of corruption. I am confident that we have taken many steps forward." Zelenskiy said, adding that a special law to deprive oligarchs of influence on the Ukrainian economy, politics, and media "has been almost outlined."