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Russia’s Passport Expansionism

By reinforcing separatist sentiment in former Soviet states, Russia's citizenship policies have paved the way for the country to secure de facto control of South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Crimea, and Moldova’s Transnistria region. Could eastern Ukraine be next?

WASHINGTON, DC – On April 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered that passports be made available to people in the areas of Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions controlled by pro-Russia separatists. The Kremlin claims this was a purely humanitarian gesture. But it is actually part of a long-term strategy to consolidate control over eastern Ukraine – and, judging by Russia’s announcement that it is considering creating a “simplified citizenship procedure” for all Ukrainians, potentially beyond.

Russia has long used citizenship and passports to enlarge its reach. As I describe in my book Beyond Crimea: The New Russian Empire, the process generally begins with the promotion of soft power and humanitarian engagement. It then progresses to compatriot policies, aimed at consolidating and “Russifying” Russian speakers abroad, and information warfare. “Passportization” is the fifth step in this process, followed by protection and, finally, annexation of territory.

Whereas most countries use their consular facilities to attract tourism, promote cultural or educational exchanges, and manage economic migration, Russia has used them to advance its security interests and territorial ambitions as well. Since the early 1990s, Russia has sought to establish dual citizenship for the Russian diaspora in former Soviet states, while “passportizing” particular regions outside its borders populated by Russian-speakers, often in defiance of those countries’ laws and international norms.

After Russia’s 2002 citizenship law made it easier for any citizen of the former Soviet Union to acquire Russian citizenship, the Kremlin launched a campaign to hand out Russian passports in Georgia’s Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions. The Russian consulate in Simferopol aggressively issued Russian passports in Crimea in the years leading up to the 2014 annexation of the peninsula. Supporting this mission, the Congress of Russian Communities, a public political organization, spearheaded the passportization process in Abkhazia since 2002 and acted as a leading pro-Russia force in Crimea prior to 2014.

By reinforcing feelings of alienation and separatism, passportization paved the way for Russia to secure de facto control of South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Crimea, and Moldova’s Transnistria region. Yet Russia continues to insist – using the modern language of human rights – that its passportization activities are intended to protect those in need.

As far back as the nineteenth century, Russian czars asserted their right to protect Orthodox citizens residing in the Ottoman Empire – a policy that contributed significantly to the Balkan Wars of that period. Since the 1990s, Russian laws and doctrines have focused on “protecting” needy Russians, Russian-speaking minorities, and their “compatriots” (a vague but frequently cited category), both within and outside the borders of the Russian Federation.

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During the 2008 Russo-Georgian war, then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev – discussing Ossetians and Abkhazians, who had been given Russian passports – reiterated that “protecting the lives and dignity of our citizens, wherever they may be, is an unquestionable priority for our country.” Russia’s use of military force in South Ossetia was also justified as defense of “the dignity and honor of the Russian citizens.”

Similarly, in 2014, Putin asserted, “We shall always protect the ethnic Russians in Ukraine, as well as that part of Ukraine’s population that feels inseparably linked with Russia ethnically, culturally, and linguistically, that feels to be a part of the broader Russkiy Mir.

Citizenship is the ultimate guarantee of the Russian state’s protection. For many people, it means social and economic benefits: a Russian passport makes it easier and less expensive to travel to Russia, where, as citizens, they can take advantage of services like free education and health care, family support schemes (including mortgage relief and cash payments for large families), and civilian and military pensions. They can also vote in Russian elections.

But, underscoring the Kremlin’s strategic machinations, many of those benefits are selectively administered outside Russia – particularly in separatist territories. For example, in 2008, Russian citizens residing in Transnistria, but not those in the rest of Moldova, received monthly government payments.

Given Russia’s track record, its new effort to passportize Ukraine should not be ignored. It is no coincidence that Putin announced his intention to grant expedited citizenship to Ukrainians living in the eastern Donbas region just four days after the country elected an unconventional candidate, Volodymyr Zelensky, as president.

The US Department of State has rightly called the Kremlin’s new passport policy in eastern Ukraine a “highly provocative action” that intensifies Russia’s “assault on Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” But Putin’s subsequent declaration that he may simplify citizenship procedures for all Ukrainians shows that vocal condemnations are not enough. The United States and its European allies should be considering further sanctions, potentially targeting Nord Stream 2, Russia’s planned gas pipeline to Germany.

Ukraine’s government must strengthen its outreach in Donbas, in order to counter Russia’s attempts to alienate the people there. But, given the country’s limited ability to push back against Russian expansionism, the United States and Europe need to do much more to prevent Russia from consolidating yet another territorial grab.

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