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Citizenship without Borders: Russian Passports for Ukrainian Citizens

Alice Underwood
Border guard checking traveler’s passport at the border crossing point Kalanchak. September 20, 2017. Khersonskaya oblast, Ukraine. Source: Shutterstock.


Citizenship has become the latest instrument in the Kremlin’s arsenal of tools for expanding Russian influence in its neighborhood. A presidential decree signed on April 24 established a simplified process for residents of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts to obtain a Russian passport and Russian citizenship rights, and on April 27 President Putin announced that the process might be extended to all Ukrainians.

In response, Ukrainian president-elect Volodymyr Zelensky has declared his intent to offer Ukrainian citizenship to Russians, thus punting the citizenship ball back across the pitch to Putin. That Putin’s decree instrumentalizes citizenship as a political and symbolic tool tied to Russian influence and interference in Ukraine is alarming enough; that citizenship has become a plaything in the leaders’ diplomatic volley raises concerns about international legal standards of citizenship more broadly.

Russian Citizenship for Ukrainian Citizens

The legal path to the decree was paved by a March amendment to the 2002 Law on Citizenship of the Russian Federation. The amendment gives the president powers to grant preferential consideration for citizenship to people from states experiencing armed conflict, regime change, or political and economic instability, as well as to compatriots living abroad. The application of the amendment to eastern Ukrainians—with the accompanying stipulation that applicants need not renounce Ukrainian citizenship, and with a three-month turnaround time estimated—was justified based on these categories.

President Putin said the decision was of a “purely humanitarian nature,” claiming that “people living in the territory of the Donetsk and Luhansk republics are completely deprived of any civil rights.” By framing the problem as Kyiv’s failure to care for its citizens while also negating Kyiv’s jurisdiction by characterizing the breakaway territories as republics, Putin positioned Russia as morally superior in helping the poor souls of the Donbas. The emphasis on rights, in light of the Russian government’s generally acknowledged tendency to ignore or violate political and especially civil rights, is a further irony.

Though the signing of the decree within days of Zelensky’s presidential victory is no coincidence, the project had been in the works for some time. A new Ministry of Internal Affairs office was opened in Rostov-on-Don in March in anticipation of eastern Ukrainians making the quick trip there to apply for Russian passports. The move has been interpreted as a step toward official recognition of the breakaway regions, whose separatist leaders have expressed their desire for reintegration with Russia. The Donbas’s population of 3.7 million would make their division from Ukraine considerable. Putin’s subsequent statements that "Ukrainians and Russians are brotherly nations” and “essentially one people” struck an eerie chord with many observers.

The Symbolic Expansion of Russian Influence

The brotherhood of the two nations, however, is not a new concept. Symbolically, the new decree reflects the Russian government’s attitude toward Ukraine as a “little brother” and therefore essentially the rightful territory of Russia, as was most obviously demonstrated by the 2014 annexation of Crimea and the subsequent involvement of “little green men” in eastern Ukraine.

In this, the concept of the Russian World rears its head. The framework emphasizes linguistic and cultural unity across the Russian-speaking space and has been used to justify international intervention on behalf of ethnic Russians—such as in Crimea, or Ukraine as a whole, territories that are seen as belonging within Russia’s sphere of influence. Ostensibly a policy to defend Russian-speaking Ukrainians, the concept of the Russian World is in fact a means to apply political pressure. Relatedly, many Russians’ perception of the conflict in Ukraine has been shaped by references in both official and social media to pro-Maidan Ukrainians as fascists, Banderites, and other names that evoke historical fears and animosity stemming from World War II—or the Great Patriotic War, as it is better known in Russia, where the emphasis on the Soviet victory overshadows other interpretations of the time period.

This trend feeds into the symbolism surrounding the current decree. Presidential aide Vladislav Surkov commented, “It is Russia's duty to people speaking and thinking in Russian, who are now in a very difficult situation because of the repressive actions of the Kyiv regime.” If Ukrainians are painted as oppressive fascists, the Russian incursion looks like an offer of aid rather than an infringement on territorial integrity.

Extending Russian citizenship beyond Russia’s borders also has demographic implications within Russia, in light of the country’s declining population. Attempts to remedy the demographic crisis have included health campaigns, patriotic education, an emphasis on traditional values (and, by extension, larger families), and policies discouraging emigration (the ineptly named “Highly Likely Welcome Back” project being one example). In the drive to attract “desirable” immigrants, a policy on resettlement from neighboring states was established in March with the aim of bringing 5–10 million Russian speakers from Ukraine, Moldova, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan—in other words, from the sphere of the Russian World.

Subverting Sovereignty and Legal Relativism

With this decree, Putin is utilizing citizenship as leverage against Ukraine's new politicians, making little attempt to hide the threat to Ukrainian sovereignty. Offering citizenship to residents of the Donbas region, with the possibility of extending the offer to the entire population of Ukraine, would create an unknown number of Russian passport holders on Ukraine's territory—a number that Russian authorities could easily manipulate. This poses a new puzzle for Ukrainian authorities, as Ukraine’s legislation does not recognize dual citizenship, but lacks a mechanism to prevent Ukrainians from getting a second passport. This has led to improvised punitive measures in the past, such as last year's expulsion of a Hungarian consul who was issuing Hungarian passports to Hungarian-speaking Ukrainians.

The move thus poses a thinly veiled threat to Zelensky’s incoming administration not to get on Russia’s bad side. While Ukrainian politicians currently in power have decried the decree—the Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemning it as the “passport stage” of occupation and sitting Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko deeming it an attempt to legitimize Russia's military presence—the true test is for the incoming president. During his campaign, Zelensky said he would not grant special status to Donetsk and Luhansk and called for deploying UN peacekeepers in the regions. Shortly after the decree, he quipped that Ukrainians would be unlikely to seek a passport that provided only "the right to be arrested for a peaceful protest," and proposed offering Ukrainian citizenship to "all people suffering within authoritarian and corrupt regimes" but first "to Russians, who suffer most of all.” In one sense, the two offers neutralize each other; in another, if Putin is testing Ukraine’s new leader, Zelensky has perhaps played into Putin’s hands: if the nations offer passports to each other’s residents, then, as Putin said in response to Zelensky’s statement, “Sooner or later, we’ll have common citizenship.”

The creation of new laws to suit elite interests is not a new phenomenon in Russia. However, the expansion of this legal relativism to infringe on the sovereignty and citizenship of other nations is a dangerous new instrument in Russia’s strategic toolkit for spreading influence in its neighborhood.

About the Author

Alice Underwood

Alice Underwood

Former Title VIII Summer Research Scholar;
PhD Candidate, Stanford University
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more