Russia and Ukraine: What's behind the passport dispute?

After Russia announced that it was offering fast-tracked Russian passports to the inhabitants of Donbass and then extended the offer to all Ukrainians, Ukraine's president designate Voldymyr Zelensky has countered by offering Russians Ukrainian citizenship. Commentators explain the real reasons for this seeming generosity.

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Kommersant (RU) /

Moment of truth for the citizens

A new rivalry is emerging between the two countries that has nothing to do with Crimea or the Donbass, observes Kommersant:

“This is a battle over soft power, over development models and democracy: Which is the better country to live in? This is a fight over values, with people at its very centre: their standards of living, quality of life, safety, basic rights and freedoms. This is the moment of truth for the passport story, because it is up to each individual to choose freely between one model or the other, to decide which model is more attractive. This situation will be a crash test for President Zelensky. If he's not bluffing, he must show his fellow citizens that Ukraine really is a role model for others.”

Lietuvos žinios (LT) /

Moscow is afraid of Zelensky

The offer of Russian passports is a sign of Moscow's fear not its strength, according to Lietuvos žinios:

“There could be another reason for the decision to issue Russian passports in Donbass. If Zelensky sticks to the pro-Western course with the help of the Western partners, he will become a far more acceptable face, also in those territories in Donbass which Kiev is unable to bring under its control. Far more acceptable than Poroshenko ever was. And this will encourage the region to reintegrate itself into the state according to Kiev's rules. In order to avoid this scenario, Moscow is now rushing to increase its influence in Donbass. Through the ruble, which functions as legal tender there, through its support for the separatist regime, but also through passports.”

Adevărul (RO) /

Only now is Brussels waking up to the threat

Commenting in his blog with Adevărul, journalist Cristian Unteanu suspects Putin's offer contains a warning to the EU:

“The Russian offer - as the European leaders have been very slow to grasp - is a concise message to all those discussing Europe's future. ... In my opinion, only now has the warning contained in the message been correctly interpreted in Brussels, because the consequences could be enormous if these precedent cases are allowed to spread and be applied elsewhere. Or more specifically, there is a possibility that the 'passport weapon' will be used in the future as a catalyst or to pave the way for conflict situations by states who want to win back territory.”

Ukrajinska Prawda (UA) /

We should have known this was coming

Commentator Oleh Petrovez, writing in Ukrayinska Pravda, finds it irritating that people are at all surprised by this step from Moscow:

“ The total expansion of the process of issuing passports of other states on Ukrainian territory continues. We recall that Hungarian passports were issued to Ukrainians in the Zakarpattia Oblast. And now the Russians are issuing passports in areas of Donbass that are temporarily not under the control of the state. This has overshadowed the most impressive event of 2019, the election of the Ukrainian president. At the end of July 2017 the Russian parliamentarians passed a law in which they set out a simplified procedure for issuing their passports to Ukrainian citizens 'just in case'. Ukraine didn't react to this, and the Ukrainian media didn't cover it either.” (RU) /

Invitation to become a protectorate

For the opposition website, which is blocked in Russia, the issuance of passports in eastern Ukraine is a half-hearted annexation:

“With his decree Putin is making it clear that unlike with Crimea, for the time being he cannot - or doesn't want to - make this region part of Russia. But turning it into a Russian protectorate is a different matter entirely. On the one hand it's not Russia, but on the other hand it is: with Russian passports, the Russian rather than the hated Ukrainian language, Russian pensions and food products, Putin portraits and local managements under Russian control. This decree is an invitation to become a protectorate. It means that the Kremlin is convinced that after the presidential election Ukraine is so weak that Russia can bite off new pieces of territory without really having to fear the consequences.”

Wedomosti (RU) /

Moscow is testing Zelensky

Vedomosti points to worrying parallels with the events that led to the Georgia conflict.

“At the start of the noughties Russia issued passports en masse to residents of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. And in August 2008, then president Medvedev justified the start of the Russo-Georgian war by saying that it was essential to protect the local population. ... His words 'Let there be no doubt: Russia will always be ready to protect its citizens' still sound threatening today. The current decree will not inevitably lead to a major worsening of relations with Ukraine. Rather it looks much more like an attempt to up the stakes in the Donbass conflict. Clearly the Kremlin is attempting to test Zelensky's position by insinuating that it could issue either a limited or a large number of passports, depending on Kiev's behaviour.”

Radio Kommersant FM (RU) /

The Kremlin has sent a clear message

Radio Kommersant FM finds the Russian strategy understandable:

“The Kremlin is sending Kiev a clear signal that it shouldn't even try to take Donetsk and Luhansk by violent means. Because then - once thousands of citizens there have been given Russian citizenship - this kind of action on the part of the Ukrainian leadership will be interpreted no differently to the actions [of the former president of Georgia] Saakashvili against South Ossetia in 2008 [when the Georgian army attacked the South Ossetian capital and the surrounding villages]. With all the familiar repercussions. ... This is a viewpoint that the West, and even the Americans, can also understand. ... Naturally they would get upset and talk of double standards. But they will understand the Kremlin's logic and take it into account when defining their future positions.”