- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Russian President Vladimir Putin widened a rift with Ukraine on Wednesday upon making it easier for residents of the country’s separatist-controlled regions to receive Russian passports.

Mr. Putin signed a decree permitting residents of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in eastern Ukraine to apply for Russian citizenship “under a simplified procedure,” effectively streamlining Moscow’s ability to issue passports to foreigners living in either war-torn section of the former Soviet state.

Moscow “has no desire to create problems for the new Ukrainian government,”  Mr. Putin said, Russian state media reported. “But to tolerate a situation in which people living in the territory of these Donetsk and Luhansk republics are completely deprived of any civil rights, this already goes beyond the limits of human rights.

“This is a purely humanitarian question,” Mr. Putin said.

Ukraine has been at war since 2014 with pro-Russian separatists occupying Donetsk and Luhansk, and the United Nations has estimated that the conflict has since claimed upwards of 13,000 lives.

The order signed by Mr. Putin waives prerequisites for residents of either region in Ukraine that would normally require them to live in Russia for five years before receiving citizenship and also calls for their applications to be considered within three months of being submitted.

Mr. Putin signed the decree days comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy defeated incumbent President Petro Poroshenko to be elected Ukraine’s next leader, prompting condemnation from both the outgoing and incoming administrations in Kiev: Mr. Poroshenko called the maneuver an attempt by Moscow “to justify and legitimize Russia’s military presence” in eastern Ukraine, while his successor said he expected retaliation in the form of “increased diplomatic and sanctions pressure.”

Russia’s decision to issue Russian passports in the occupied Ukrainian territories is a continuation of aggression and interference in our internal affairs,” said Ukraine Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin.

Ukraine’s Mission to the United Nations called it a “provocative move” and asked the U.N. Security Council to intervene.

Russia has long denied providing direct military support to rebels in Ukraine, disputing evidence cited by the U.S. State Department, Office of the Director of National Intelligence and NATO, among others.

Eastern Ukraine became a hotbed for pro-Russian separatists around the same time Crimea, a peninsula in the Black Sea, was invaded by the Russian military and subsequently annexed from Kiev. Neither the U.S. nor several Western allies currently recognize Crimea as Russian, though several have responded by subjected Moscow to various sanctions.

“We condemn Russia’s recent absurd and destabilizing decree about Russian passports for Donetsk and Luhansk residents and affirm our strong support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” the U.S. Embassy in Kiev said in a statement.

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