Passportization: Russia’s tool of state aggression in its near abroad

Days after the election of Volodymyr Zelensky as new President of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced to simplify the procedure for Ukrainian citizens in the Donbass occupied territories to obtain Russian citizenship. A few days later he went further by saying this applies to all Ukrainians and thus inviting them to become Russian. Russia will open a special passport center in Rostov, the nearest major city.

This send shockwaves through the international community which summarized this is a provocative action against the spirit and goals of the Minsk agreements. For countries such as Moldova and Georgia, this was a stark reminder of their own experiences with Russification in their separatist regions. Georgia in particular has very bad experiences with this: it created a pretext to “protect Russian citizens” by military means in 2008.

Under Ukrainian law, dual citizenship is not allowed. Therefore the leadership in Ukraine indicated it will not recognize the Russian passports given to people in the Donbass. For Moscow that doesn’t change anything, except for the fact that it hopes to generate masses of official Russian citizens in its “near abroad”, regardless whether Ukraine recognizes that citizenship.

Near abroad and Putin

President Putin has a long history of emphasizing the need to guard the interests of the Russian “diaspora” in Russia’s so called “near abroad”, the former Soviet Union. Not only has he regretted repeatedly since 2005 the collapse of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”, he used this emotion to influence geopolitics in the near abroad in order to claim a Russian exclusive sphere of influence in the near abroad. Ultimately with military means as was shown in 2008 and 2014 towards the two countries with strong EU and NATO ambitions.

As early as 1994 when he was deputy Mayor of St. Petersburg, Putin has emphasized the issue of Russian speakers and people of Russian nationality outside of Russia in former Soviet states and the importance of dual citizenship. He connected that with the fact that Russia had voluntarily agreed upon handing over “traditionally Russian territory” to new independent republics, “not only Crimea or North Kazakhstan but also Kaliningrad” for peace and stability reasons (Bergedorf Round Table 1994). On that instance he went on by saying that 25 million Russians live outside of Russia which it cannot afford itself they are left to their fate, for “peace and stability of Europe”. He upheld that “as long as the world community does not respect the legitimate interests of the Russian state and the Russian people as a great nation, such forces will appear again and again in this country, in this nation, which threaten the stability in Russia.”

And so did Putin weaponize nationality and citizenship once he became President of the Russian Federation in 2000. Russia actively distributed Russian citizenship in Georgia, among the Abkhazian and South Ossetian population since the late 90s. Initially this had a rather innocent nature, as a means to travel from the de facto separated regions, but after the Rose Revolution in 2003 and Saakashvili’s vow to regain control over the areas, the Kremlin started to weaponize this Russification policy. After Georgia’s failed attempt to regain control over South Ossetia in summer 2004 Putin declared that Russia had the obligation to protect the large number of Russian citizens in South Ossetia, indicating a more assertive goal of the passportization policy. After all, Ossetians (and Abkhaz) were by no means the “traditional Russians in the near abroad” he voiced concern about 10 years prior, nor did they identify themselves as such.

By August 2008 just before the Russian invasion, more than 90% of the Ossetian populace in South Ossetia had Russian citizenship, according to then regional leader Eduard Kokoity (HRW), legitimizing the Kremlin’s invasion on August 8, 2008. In the case of Georgia it has become clear that the distribution of passports to Georgian citizens (and of non-Russian nationality, ethnicity) was a deliberate means to create a pretext to militarily intervene when deemed opportune, as stated in the Boston University International Law Journal (vol 28, 2010):

“By marrying the state’s sovereign right to confer citizenship with the state’s sovereign right to protect its citizens, the former right can be effectively transformed into a tool of state aggression.”

“… given the outline of both the abuse of rights doctrine and its underlying principles, the doctrine seems to provide a legal framework in which to argue that Russia’s actions violated international law and therefore the international community should not recognize Russia’s right to protect the citizens of South Ossetia on the basis of their being Russian citizens”


How does this translate to the latest steps of the Kremlin regarding the artificially separated and Russian occupied territories in Ukraine? Since 2014, the Kremlin has actively violated Ukraine’s sovereign territorial integrity, by illegally annexing Crimea and extracting parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts from Ukrainian authority through military means wrapped as a separatist civil conflict while injecting proxy forces. The Kremlin so far refrained from an active Russification policy until last week, pretending it was cooperative in the Minsk platform. That pretense has now been dropped.

Russia has now switched to an active Russification policy in Ukraine, not only for the occupied territories but for the entire Ukraine. The Russian invasion in Donbass was part of the “Novorussia” project, aimed at annexing the whole Black sea coastal zone from Donbass to Odessa, in parallel with the 18th century Governate of the Russian Empire. This project was abandoned in 2015. The whole south eastern flank of Ukraine contains relatively the most residents that identify as Russian nationality, ethnicity and have Russian as their prime language. Which seems to indicate it is no coincidence that the Kremlin extends simplified Russian citizenship procedures to people outside of the conflict zones as well.

Currently Russia denies any military presence in the Donbas occupied territory, but with increasing the amount of Russian citizens in these territories Russia could legitimize official presence under its self-declared “legitimate right to protect Russian citizens”, something it has shown to actively engage in.

Given the history, the international community should therefore be very resolute in addressing this abuse of the (citizenship) rights policy and doctrine, as a very hostile and subversive policy, aimed at actively undermining Ukrainian sovereignty. And thus endangering European stability and security. The EU should ramp up its measures against the Russian state.

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