Russia has a fast-track passport that allows it to extend its influence in Ukraine

MOSCOW (AP), -- Ivan Malyuta is a Russian citizen who applied for Russian citizenship in Donetsk. He said that he and his three children, as well as his wife, have been granted Russian citizenship.

Russia has a fast-track passport that allows it to extend its influence in Ukraine

Russia has a fast-track passport that allows it to extend its influence in Ukraine

MOSCOW (AP), -- Ivan Malyuta is a Russian citizen who applied for Russian citizenship in Donetsk. He said that he and his three children, as well as his wife, have been granted Russian citizenship.

"I want to become a citizen in the Russian Federation." "We are moving towards that, aren’t we?" he stated at a Donetsk immigration service office.

Malyuta's family will join over 720,000 people from rebel-held eastern Ukraine, who have been granted Russian citizenship and passports. This fast-track process is widely considered an attempt to emphasize Russia's influence there.

Moscow denies that it has deployed troops or weapons in rebel-held areas. Government officials have repeatedly stressed that Russia is not a part of the conflict which has claimed over 14,000 lives. Russia also offered citizens of the self-proclaimed Donetsk or Luhansk republics membership to its ruling party, as well as other perks such COVID-19 vaccinations and trade preferences for local producers.

The efforts of Russia amid rising tensions, fears of an invasion and other concerns have shocked Ukraine. Dmytro Kuleba, the foreign minister, urged last week the European Union to impose sanctions against Russia for "its illegal mass issuing Russian passports to Ukrainian citizens."

Russian lawmakers appealed Tuesday to President Vladimir Putin for recognition of independence of the self-proclaimed republics. This triggered even more anger in Kyiv with both parliament and the Foreign Ministry condemning the move.

Putin has not yet indicated how he would respond to the request. However, he indicated that he was not inclined to support it, as this would be a violation of a 2015 agreement regarding their status.

Analysts agree that the Kremlin will not support independence for Donetsk or Luhansk anytime soon, but it will continue to reap political advantages from its involvement in eastern Ukraine.

"It's a way of keeping the pressure upon Kyiv, destabilizing them, and hindering Ukraine’s movement towards European values and towards NATO," Dmitry Oreshkin, a Moscow-based political analyst, said. The decree simplified the process for obtaining Russian citizenship for Luhansk and Donetsk residents in April 2019, the day after Volodymyrzelenskyy's election victory was officially declared.

More than 720,000 people in rebel-held areas, which is 18% of the total population, have been granted Russian passports since then.

Official of Donetsk's migration service, Olga Matvienko told The Associated Press that the number of Russian passport applicants has increased over recent weeks due to tensions in Ukraine. The process is "extremely simple" and can take anywhere from one to three months, she said.

Donetsk residents have claimed that Russian citizenship provides them with protection from powerful neighbouring states.

Nelya Dzyuba, a retired 62-year old woman, said that relatives in Russia tell her that Putin will not abandon us and that everything will be okay.

Many claim it will enable them to travel to Russia, and to enjoy the benefits Russian citizens have such as free healthcare. However, passport holders must still go through extra red tape to get access to these benefits. Putin, however, has asked the government to make it easier.

Ukrainian officials claim that Russian passports were given to rebel-held residents in violation of a 2015 peace agreement for eastern Ukraine, which was brokered by France & Germany. Moscow refutes this accusation.

Although the deal is commonly known as the Minsk Agreements, it did not bring about a political solution to the conflict. It envisaged Donetsk, Luhansk, and the rest of Ukraine as part of Ukraine with some autonomy from Kyiv. Kyiv has stated that implementing these agreements would be detrimental to Ukraine. However, the Kremlin insists that the Minsk agreement is the only way to resolve the conflict and has accused Ukraine of sabotage its implementation.

Kuleba, Ukraine's foreign minister, stated last week that issuing Russian passports on a large scale to rebel-held areas violates the Minsk Agreements.

Oleksiy Daliblov, secretary of Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council spoke in an interview with AP. He said that they have issued "a crazy amount" of Russian passports and added that they are "involving these people in their politics structure.

Residents of Donetsk, Luhansk with Russian passports were permitted to vote in last year’s Russian parliamentary election and in 2020's plebiscite for constitutional reform. This allows Putin to run again for two terms. They were taken by bus to Rostov in Russia to vote.

The Kremlin's ruling United Russia party accepted in December top officials from the self-proclaimed governments of Donetsk, Luhansk, and 200 other residents of rebel-held areas into its ranks.

Analyst Oreshkin also pointed out the political benefits to the Kremlin and said it could lead to "almost one million more votes for Vladimir Putin and his United Russia party."

Some fear that Russia could use the fact that hundreds of thousands of Russian citizens live in Donbas to justify a military intervention to protect them amid warnings of Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Russian officials have accused Kyiv repeatedly of plotting to retake rebel-held areas with force, and they have promised to take action if this happens. Vyacheslav Volodin, State Duma speaker, said Tuesday that the lawmakers' call to Putin for recognition of the self-proclaimed republics was a response to his plea.

Mykola Sunhurovskyi is a military expert from the Kyiv-based Razumkov Center thinktank. He said that Russia could use "defending the interests Russian citizens in Donetsk or Luhansk as pretext...for starting the war."

Sunhurovskyi pointed out that Russia used the same pretext in 2008 to justify its war against Georgia, after giving Russian passports to residents living in the separatist regions of South Ossetia or Abkhazia.

Analyst Oreshkin stated, however that the Kremlin is more interested in keeping rebel-held areas in limbo, and showing that it has several options -- whether it's recognizing their independence, or deploying troops to protect Russian citizens.

"There has been no political interest to date. Oreshkin stated that there is a political interest in scaremongering in Ukraine and NATO countries with this rhetoric.

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