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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.