This week, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed an order offering an expedited Russian naturalization process to all Ukrainians, who would thereby be eligible for Russian citizenship and issued a Russian passport without passing a language test, without having ever lived in Russia, and without paying the fee. The entire process would take less than three months, according to the order, which implies Putin’s plans for continued conflict and permanent occupation.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has denounced Putin’s decree, saying that “the purpose of this criminal policy is not just to steal people, but to make those who are deported forget about Ukraine and unable to return.” Similarly, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Kuleba accused Russia of “tightening the noose around the necks of the residents of the temporarily occupied territories of our state” and that these actions are “worthless” and show Putin’s “predatory appetite.”
The idea was first introduced in 2019 in the Donetsk and Luhansk breakaway regions. Since 2019, over 720,000 Ukrainians in these regions have received Russian passports and many have participated in Russian elections, which has furthered Russia’s ambitions to integrate Ukrainians into their society. It was expanded to Russian occupied territories Kherson and Zaporizhzia in May, but now has been extended to all of Ukraine. The first Russian passports were recently delivered to the occupied territories, meaning that there is some interest in an end to this war through a ‘land for peace’ exchange.
President Putin has claimed that “Kyiv has failed to care for its citizens”, and that the people of Ukraine are “completely deprived of any civil rights.” By operating under the false pretense of humanitarianism, Putin looks to a 2002 law to justify the decree.
The 2002 Law of Citizenship of the Russian Federation states that the “president has 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.”
Many believe Russia’s path to citizenship program undermines Ukrainian sovereignty and is subversive and manipulative in nature. It forces Ukrainians to acknowledge Putin’s long term goal and the lengths he will go to achieve them. This decree propagates the idea that there is no other choice but to submit to Putin’s will.
Nonetheless, some in Eastern Ukraine have shown interest in the program. Pro-Moscow de facto governor of Kherson, Vladimir Saldo, has said that “all our Kherson residents want to obtain a passport and [Russian] citizenship as soon as possible” and that “it’s a new era that is beginning for us. It’s the most important document a person can possess in their life.”
Some view this as a softer way to end the war. Strong western powers that are supporting Ukraine, such as European countries and the United States, are running out of morale and the resources for sufficient support against the larger Russian army. The balance of power is decidedly in Russia’s favor. The cost of civilian and military lives, destroyed cities and infrastructure, and a growing refugee crisis may prove to be too high. As a result, some Ukrainians may be inclined to seek other means to end the invasion.
President Zelenskyy has repeatedly dismissed a ‘land for peace’ exchange, and a large majority of Ukrainians agree with him. ‘Land for peace’ suggestions are compared to appeasing Hitler during World War II. In separatist areas, some are welcoming the new pathway to Russian citizenship, and Kyiv may be forced to reconsider its priorities. Ukrainian citizens and leadership will have to weigh the cost of fighting with no end in sight with the loss of sovereign territory. For some in Eastern Ukraine, the pathway to Russian citizenship may be a worthwhile consideration if it means the end of this brutal war.