Russia on Wednesday made it easier for people living in eastern Ukraine’s separatist territories to obtain Russian passports, drawing swift condemnation from Kiev only three days after it elected a new president.
President Vladimir Putin signed the decree aimed at residents of the unrecognised 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.
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.
Officials in Kiev slammed the move, saying the timing was aimed to destabilise Ukraine during a period of transition.
The country elected comedian Volodymyr Zelensky as president last weekend.
Due to be inaugurated by early June, Zelensky has pledged to “reboot” peace talks with the separatists that also involve Russia and the West.
‘Knife in Ukraine’s back’
Putin said the new law was “purely a humanitarian issue.”
“We have no desire to create problems for the new Ukrainian authorities,” he said during a meeting with lawmakers in Saint Petersburg.
The Russian leader added that people living in the rebel republics are “completely deprived of any civil rights”.
“They cannot move normally, cannot realise their most elementary needs,” he said.
According to a copy of the decree published on the Kremlin website, the law aimed to “protect rights” and was guided by “the norms of international law”.
But Ukraine’s foreign minister Pavlo Klimkin called the decision “the continuation of aggression and interference in our internal affairs.”
He urged residents in eastern Ukraine not to take Russian passports.
“Russia has deprived you of the present, and now it is trespassing on your future,” he wrote on Twitter.
Iryna Gerashchenko, the deputy speaker of the Ukrainian parliament, said Putin “always uses moments of uncertainty and transition periods to plunge another knife into Ukraine’s back.”
She said the move is a “gross violation” of peace agreements signed by the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany in Minsk in 2015.
These aimed to put an end to the conflict but fighting has continued with no clear end in sight.
Zelensky, whose only previous political experience so far has been limited to playing the role of president in a TV show, won Sunday’s vote with a landslide victory.
He has said he wants to “renew relations” with the residents of eastern Ukraine, saying “they are also Ukrainians”.
The actor has announced plans to start a “powerful information war to end the conflict.”
People living in eastern Ukraine mainly have access to Russian television channels.
On the campaign trail, Russian-speaking Zelensky criticised some of Kiev’s anti-Moscow policies while saying he would keep Ukraine on a pro-Western course.
He has also said he would not resort to force to take back Crimea.
Russia’s reaction to his win has been mixed, with the Kremlin refusing to congratulate him but others seeing an opportunity to improve ties.