EU, Ukraine’s president-elect lash Russia’s easing citizenship for separatists

Brussels says Putin’s move is ‘another attack on Ukraine’s sovereignty,’ while Zelensky expresses hope for new sanctions against Moscow

Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a state-of-the-nation address in Moscow, Russia, February 20, 2019. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP)
Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a state-of-the-nation address in Moscow, Russia, February 20, 2019. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP)

The European Union condemned Moscow on Thursday for making it easier for people in separatist areas of east Ukraine to obtain Russian passports, calling it a fresh assault on the war-torn country’s sovereignty.

The controversial decree signed by President Vladimir Putin “is another attack on Ukraine’s sovereignty by Russia,” a spokeswoman for EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini said in a statement.

“The timing of such a decision immediately after Ukraine’s presidential election… shows Russia’s intention to further destabilize Ukraine and to exacerbate the conflict,” the spokeswoman added.

The EU urged Russia “to refrain from actions that are against the Minsk agreements and impede the full reintegration of the non-government controlled areas into Ukraine.”

Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the Commission, speaks during a EU Foreign Affairs Council (FAC) at the European Council in Brussels on November 20, 2018. (John Thys/AFP)

Germany and France on Thursday also condemned Moscow, saying the move undermined the Minsk peace agreements.

That deal was signed by the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany in the Belarus capital of Minsk in 2015.

Putin’s decree was signed three days after Ukraine elected a new president and is aimed at residents of the unrecognized Donetsk and Lugansk republics that broke away from Kiev in 2014 and are governed by Moscow-backed rebels.

People living in the separatist regions will now be entitled to receive a Russian passport within three months of applying for one.

Ukraine’s president-elect Volodymyr Zelensky, a comedian who won Kiev’s weekend vote, has called for more international sanctions against Russia in response to the move.

Ukrainian comedian and presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelensky reacts after the announcement of the first exit poll results in the second round of Ukraine’s presidential election at his campaign headquarters in Kiev on April 21, 2019. (Sergei Gapon/AFP)

The conflict between the Ukrainian government and breakaway rebels began after Moscow annexed Kiev’s Crimea peninsula in 2014.

The war has claimed some 13,000 lives despite repeated efforts, led by France and Germany, to broker a lasting ceasefire.

Zelensky on Wednesday said he was “counting on increased diplomatic and sanctions pressure on the Russian Federation,” Zelensky’s press service said in a statement.

“The Russian Federation has recognized its responsibility as an occupying state,” it added, referring to Putin’s decree.

Ukraine’s outgoing President Petro Poroshenko also slammed the decision, calling it “Russia’s unprecedented interference in the internal affairs of an independent state.”

“This is an attempt to justify and legitimize Russia’s military presence in the occupied part of the Ukrainian Donbass,” Poroshenko said in a video statement, referring to the Kremlin-backed separatist areas.

Meanwhile Putin said Thursday that Russia was ready to restore full relations with Kiev.

“We want and we are ready to fully restore relations with Ukraine. But we cannot do this unilaterally,” he told journalists following his summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un in Vladivostok.

A Ukrainian military tank is stationed outside a building in the flashpoint eastern town of Avdiivka that sits just north of the pro-Russian rebels’ de facto capital of Donetsk on February 2, 2017. (Aleksey Filippov/AFP)

He said the weekend election, in which Zelensky beat incumbent Poroshenko with 73 percent of the vote, showed the “complete failure” of Poroshenko’s policies.

“Ukraine’s new leadership cannot fail to understand this,” he said.

Poroshenko took a hard line on Russia over his term, which was marked by the fight against Moscow-backed rebels in eastern separatist regions.

Over a bitter campaign he consistently presented himself as the only candidate who could stand up to Putin.

Zelensky, a 41-year-old Jewish comic with no political experience, was elected Sunday on promises of change but has generally stood by the Western-oriented course of defeated president Poroshenko. Zelensky hailed his victory as a sign to people in post-Soviet nations that “everything is possible,” but he also has said he wants better relations with Russia.

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