AVDIIVKA, Ukraine — Tensions on the border with Ukraine are already sky-high, but analysts and locals say Russia has embraced a potent new strategy in its efforts to destabilize and potentially absorb a chunk of its neighbor — by turning locals into Russian nationals.
It’s unclear how many passports Russia has issued to Ukrainian nationals in Donbass, as Ukraine’s restive and culturally divided eastern region is called locally. But locals and analysts estimate that nearly a half-million Ukrainians have received — some against their will — the small reddish diplomatic booklet adorned with a two-headed eagle and the words “Russian Federation.”
Stanislav Aseev, 31, an analyst with the Ukrainian Institute for the Future, a Kyiv-based think tank, said the pressure to become Russian is growing in the region as local authorities move to restrict the rights of non-Russian passport holders.
“In [the eastern town of] Donetsk, they are going to pass a law which restricts property rights for those who only hold Ukrainian passports. These people will not be able to sell or buy housing in that territory,” he said.
The grinding civil war in eastern Ukraine is one of the deadliest on the European continent. Russian-backed and Russian-speaking separatist forces have battled the Western-backed government in Kyiv for more than seven years. More than 13,000 are estimated to have been killed. That includes more than 3,000 civilians trapped in the fighting. Ukraine and its allies accuse the Kremlin of angling to annex parts of eastern Ukraine in the same way it seized Crimea in 2014.
Local authorities in separatist-held regions of Donbass are even starting to look at the lack of a Russian-issued identity document as a cause for suspicion.
Mr. Aseev said the Ministry of State Security in Donbass, the local equivalent of the KGB, reportedly has ordered officials to pay special attention to those who resist applying for separatist-issued passports from the Donetsk or Luhansk regions. The passport is a prerequisite to obtaining Russian nationality.
“Officials question why [some residents] don’t have local documents seven years after the war started …,” he said. “The so-called ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ and ‘Luhansk People’s Republic’ passports are mandatory for state employees. Meanwhile, the local authorities organize tours to Russia solely to obtain Russian passports.”
Russia recently alarmed Europeans with a major troop buildup near the Ukrainian border. Defense officials in Moscow said it was a training exercise. Russia has withdrawn many of the forces, but the tensions linger.
A separate country
Since the conflict within Ukraine broke out, the east — which has cultural, linguistic and economic ties to Russia — has been increasingly operating as a separate country. Ukrainians who live in the eastern regions are restricted from entering Kyiv-controlled territory without special permits from local authorities. Some, especially those in the government and the military, are forbidden from leaving.
Those restrictions make it difficult for Ukrainians in the eastern part of the country to obtain or renew national identity documents, though analysts say the documents put eastern Ukrainians at a disadvantage. Civil servants are threatened with salary cuts if they refuse to accept the offer of Russian citizenship.
Anastasia, 29, a public school teacher and single mother with an infant in Makiivka, a town near Donetsk, said the pressure is increasingly difficult to resist.
“The local authorities are doing everything they can to make life uncomfortable for people with Ukrainian documents to ensure that everyone gets Russian passports as soon as possible,” said Anastasia, who did not want to give her last name because she fears repercussions. “State employees often get calls from their jobs with hints of an ultimatum that they need to get a Donetsk People’s Republic passport [so they can] get Russian citizenship.”
Anastasia fears she will be forced to get a Russian passport once her child goes to kindergarten and she returns to work from maternity leave. School administrators, she said, “won’t get off my back.”
Others are jumping at the chance to secure official Russian nationality.
Alexander, 32, from Donetsk, said he began trying to get a Russian passport shortly after the separatist clashes began in 2014. Although he grew up in Ukraine, he said, he has been told all his life that he is Russian. He was born in Russia to Ukrainian parents and has worked in Russia over the past few years.
“A passport opens up new opportunities for life in Russia,” he said.
Alexander was able to get a Russian passport after President Vladimir Putin simplified the procedure for Ukrainian residents two years ago. A few bribes, he acknowledged, expedited the process.
“I put seven U.S. dollars worth of Russian rubles under a box of chocolates — that’s it,” he said with a smile. “In Donetsk, the whole procedure usually takes about six months, but I bought a place in line” with a bribe of about $70.
He said he and hundreds of others boarded seven Russian buses and traveled about 150 miles to a military-type complex near Rostov-on-Don, Russia, to pick up the passports — courtesy of Russian and local authorities.
“There were soldiers with machine guns around the perimeter, and people were allowed into the area only through a checkpoint,” he said. “We had to wait outside for an hour or so to get inside.”
Mr. Putin talks openly of the plight of millions of Russians he says were “trapped” outside of their country with the collapse of the Soviet Union, with significant Russian minority populations in newly independent countries, including Ukraine, along its long western and southern borders.
Analysts say Russia also has used this “passportization” scheme in the breakaway republic of Transnistria, which is officially part of Moldova, and Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which are breakaway enclaves that are officially part of Georgia. Within nine months after annexing Crimea, Russians issued more than 1.5 million passports there.
Ukrainian authorities, who do not recognize Russian passports issued to residents of east Ukraine, do not appreciate the scale and ambition of Russia’s scheme, Mr. Aseev said.
Ukraine, he said, should counter Moscow’s power play by recognizing Russian passports the way Baltic countries with large ethnic Russian populations do. Latvians, for example, decide their rights such as the right to vote.
“If Ukraine suddenly gets these territories back tomorrow, without a proper law, the new Russians with the old Ukrainian passports will be able to vote in elections,” he said.
Still, he noted how difficult it has been for many residents of the east, where shelter and medical treatment were withheld, bank accounts were restricted and people in general weren’t treated as full Ukrainian citizens.
“Ukraine has offered them little over the past seven years,” he said.
In the Ukrainian-controlled town of Avdiivka, a half-mile from the front lines, the sound of shelling has become as normal as a car horn. Local authorities complain about a lack of support from Kyiv and say officials cannot force people in the east to love their country.
Mayor Vitaly Barabash, 43, said that part of the town’s population supports Russia and Kyiv cannot win them over without real changes that improve their lives.
“That’s the only way to fight for the hearts and minds of these people,” he said. “We’re trying to convince them, not bend them over the knee.”