The proverb about it being better to plead forgiveness rather than ask a question to which you don’t want the answer permission is usually reserved for mischievous young children. It is not often that such an analogy can be used when referring to the behaviour of world leaders, but Vladimir Putin has just become eligible. His decision to formally accept passports and other documentation issued by the self-proclaimed governments of rebel regions in Ukraine is as controversial as it is savvy. Presenting the Ukrainian government and the rest of Europe with a fait accompli rather than threatening such action has caught them off-guard and uncertain of how to respond.
The decree states that any passports, personal identity papers, education certificates, diplomas, driving licences, car registration and birth, death and divorce certificates that have been issued by the rebel governments in Donetsk and Luhansk are to be officially recognised as legitimate by the Russian state. The move will grant inhabitants of Donetsk and Luhansk the same de facto rights as fully-fledged Russian citizens, whether that is in terms of freedom to travel around the country or access to goods and services.
Despite a fairly vociferous reaction from diplomats in the United States, the European Union and from across Europe, the Kremlin has sought to justify the controversial move on ‘humanitarian’ grounds. The blockade set up by volunteer Ukrainian nationalist battalions around the regions is, according to Moscow officials, strangling the life out of Donetsk and Luhansk. Not allowing citizens of the rebel-held areas to cross into Ukrainian-held territory is damaging for both individual citizens and the region’s self-proclaimed government. The Russian Foreign Minister criticised the Ukrainian government for the blockade and alleged that it is doing everything within its power to make life difficult for those caught up in the fighting. Sergei Lavrov stated that Kiev is doing all it can ‘to make life as difficult as possible for the residents of those territories and make it as hard as possible for them to enjoy the most rights and freedoms. It’s hard and often impossible to exercise those rights without documents.’ The employment of this altruistic rhetoric, to vindicate the Kremlin’s actions, risks lending the decree a qualified legitimacy.
However, the decree has been met with a ferocious backlash around the world. The dominant belief of European and world leaders is that the Russian government’s actions are an effort to disrupt any prospects for peace within eastern Ukraine. This has been predominantly placed within a framework of the Minsk Accords, which were a series of agreements drawn up by both sides in 2015 to limit the damage of the fighting. The U.S. State Department has denounced the passports issued as ‘illegitimate’ and the move as an attempt to ‘undermine efforts to bring peace to eastern Ukraine.’ Within Europe the response has been more intense. A spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel has deemed the decree ‘totally unacceptable’ whilst the German Foreign Minister called it ‘a clear violation of the spirit and aims of the Minsk agreements.’ Ukrainian President Pavel Poroshenko and his Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin have echoed this rhetoric. According to the latter, ‘this decree fundamentally contravenes the logic of the Minsk agreements.’ That the EU has added its name to the ever-growing number of disapproving voices just serves to highlight the lack of support for the move outside of Russia.
There is also an underlying tension about the sovereignty of Ukraine. Although Moscow has cited humanitarian reasons for the decision to recognise the passports and other documents, some government officials in Ukraine believe that it is a ‘deliberate escalation’ of the situation. Moscow denies the accusation that the move amounts to formal recognition of the territories as autonomous regions, which would be illegal under international law. Despite Russian diplomatic sources, who spoke to the business newspaper RBK on the condition of anonymity, denying that Moscow is intending to formally recognise the region, powerbrokers in Kiev remain unconvinced. The head of Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Council Oleksandr Turchynov is damning in his consideration of the decree believing that it signifies that ‘Putin has legally recognised the quasi-state terrorist groups which cover Russia’s occupation of part of Donbass.’ Questioning Moscow’s true intentions seems prudent when a recent historical precedent exists for this kind of behaviour.
When Russia annexed South Ossetia and Abkhazia from Georgia in 2008 they used identity documents as a stepping-stone on the way to formal recognition. After the initial military skirmish in which they routed the Georgian forces, they recognised the identity papers issued by the separatist governments. The governments’ celebrations were not short-lived, as official recognition of the regions as autonomous duly followed. To this day, the regions are still engulfed in what can be deemed a frozen conflict with no end in sight. With this in mind, the backlash across Europe can be better understood.
In spite of appearances, this decree doesn’t represent a cataclysmic change on the ground. Before the passing of the bill, citizens from Donetsk and Luhansk could almost certainly travel freely to and from Russia, with only one anecdote surfacing about a Russian officer who deemed the paperwork of the person in question illegitimate. He was also looking for a bribe of 1,500 roubles (circa £20). Other documents issued by the rebel governments have also been functional in Russia.
This move by Putin is not a sure-fire, modern-day Trojan horse moment. Without a doubt, the potential remains for it to escalate into such but that is not to say that it’s a given. The significance lies in the timing of the decree more than the content. During his election campaign, Donald Trump seemingly offered an olive branch to Moscow in the hope of fostering better relations. However, in the wake of the resignation of Trump’s National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, this move might be a signal from Russia that it is prepared to burn that olive branch. If that is the case, then Russia’s decisions can be seen as Putin’s first test of the Trump regime’s commitment to peace in eastern Ukraine.