ST PETERSBURG, Russia/KIEV (Reuters) - Russian President Vladimir Putin signed an order on Wednesday simplifying the procedure for obtaining a Russian passport for residents of separatist-controlled eastern Ukraine, prompting calls from Kiev for more international sanctions.
Five years of war between Ukrainian troops and Russian-backed forces have killed 13,000 people despite a notional ceasefire signed in 2015.
Russia’s move is an early test for the Ukrainian president-elect, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who won a landslide victory in Sunday’s presidential election and has pledged to find a peaceful solution to the conflict.
Zelenskiy said Putin’s action showed Russia was waging war in Ukraine and brought the two sides no closer to peace. He called for the international community to threaten Russia with more sanctions. Outgoing President Petro Poroshenko said Russia might try to annex the Donbass region.
“Russia, through this highly provocative action, is intensifying its assault on Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” the U.S. State Department said in a statement.
Rebellions broke out against Ukrainian government rule in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in 2014. Moscow provided military help for the separatists, according to evidence gathered by Reuters, although Russian officials have denied providing material support.
Plans have been in the works for several months to streamline the issuing of Russian passports to residents of the two regions, according to sources close to the separatist administrations. If those plans had been announced before the Ukrainian election, it could have bolstered the chances of Poroshenko, the candidate Moscow least wanted to win.
“We have no desire to create problems for the new Ukrainian leadership, but to tolerate a situation in which people living in the territory of Donetsk and Luhansk republic are generally deprived of any civil rights, this is already crossing the line from the point of view of human rights,” Putin said.
Ukraine urged residents not to apply for Russian passports and informed the United Nations about Russia’s move. Kiev also asked the European Union to take “prompt and decisive” action.
Swathes of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions are now under the de facto control of the Moscow-backed rebels, while Ukraine says it is determined to reassert its control, a position backed by most Western countries.
Zelenskiy’s office said his priority was achieving peace but called Russia’s actions “another evident confirmation for the world community of Russia’s true role as an aggressor state, which is waging a war against Ukraine”, according to a statement.
Russia has consistently denied Western and Ukrainian accusations that it sends troops and heavy weapons to fight Ukrainian forces in the region.
Relations between Ukraine and Russia plunged after the Maidan street protests in Kiev in 2014 prompted a Kremlin-backed Ukrainian president to flee into exile.
Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula a month later in March 2014, triggering Western sanctions.
The United States, the European Union and Russia will be closely watching Zelenskiy’s foreign policy pronouncements to see if and how he might try to end the conflict.
Immediately after Zelenskiy’s victory, the Kremlin said it was premature to talk of Putin congratulating Zelenskiy or the possibility of the two leaders working together.
Zelenskiy has pledged to keep Ukraine on a pro-Western course while sounding less emphatic than Poroshenko about possible plans for the country of 42 million people to join the EU or NATO one day.
The head of Poroshenko’s security council said Russia’s move was intended to give Moscow legal cover for deploying troops to eastern Ukraine on the pretext of protecting Russian citizens.
“It is actually about the Kremlin’s preparations for the next step of aggression against our state - the annexation of the Ukrainian Donbass or the creation of a Russian enclave in Ukraine,” said Poroshenko, who remains president until Zelenskiy is inaugurated, likely next month.
Poroshenko urged Ukraine’s allies “to prevent the worst scenario, to severely condemn the destructive and criminal actions of the Russian authorities and to strengthen the regime of international sanctions”.
Reporting by Darya Korsunskaya and Pavel Polityuk; Additional reporting by Anton Zverev in Moscow, Andrei Makhovsky and Natalia Zinets in Kiev and Eric Beech in Washington; Writing by Anton Kolodyazhnyy, Christian Lowe and Matthias Williams; Editing by Andrew Heavens, Alison Williams and Peter Cooney