Russian President Vladimir Putin says his administration is considering a plan to ease the process of granting Russian citizenship to all Ukrainians, not only those in war-torn parts of eastern Ukraine.
Putin made the remark on April 27 at an infrastructure development summit in Beijing.
On April 24, Putin announced a presidential decree that eases the process of granting Russian citizenship to anyone living in parts of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions that are under the control of Russia-backed separatists.
That decree drew a swift and angry response from Kyiv, the United States, Britain, the European Union, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the international organization tasked with monitoring compliance with the 2015 Minsk agreements on eastern Ukraine.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said Putin's decree "is actually about the Kremlin's preparations for the next step of aggression against our state – the annexation of the Ukrainian Donbas or the creation of a Russian enclave in Ukraine."
The OSCE said in a statement on April 25 that its chairmanship “believes that this unilateral measure could undermine the efforts for a peaceful resolution of the crisis in and around Ukraine.”
It said it was reiterating its “call for a sustainable, full and permanent cease-fire and its firm support for the work of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, which plays an essential role in reducing tensions on the ground, and in fostering peace, stability and security.”
In a joint statement on April 25, France and Germany – the European guarantors of the Minsk agreements – said Putin's decree "goes against the spirit and aims" of the Minsk process, which aims to establish a stable cease-fire in the conflict in parts of eastern Ukraine's Donbas region and then proceed to a political settlement.
"This is the opposite of the urgently necessary contribution toward deescalation," the statement said.
European Commission spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic said the decree was "another attack on Ukraine's sovereignty by Russia."
"We expect Russia to refrain from actions that are against the Minsk agreements and impede the full reintegration of the nongovernment-controlled areas into Ukraine," she said.
Ukraine's foreign minister called Putin’s decree a form of "aggression and interference" in Kyiv's affairs, while a Western diplomat told RFE/RL it was a "highly provocative step" that would undermine the situation in the war-ravaged region known as the Donbas.
The U.S. State Department also criticized Russia's move, saying Moscow "through this highly provocative action, is intensifying its assault on Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity."
Critics point to other frozen conflicts in former Soviet republics where Russia has granted citizenship to residents of separatist-held territory in order to choreograph demographic changes over time and justify future military operations.
In 2002, the Kremlin began granting Russian citizenship to residents of Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia – a policy that helped raise the number of Russian passport holders there from about 20 percent to more than 85 percent of the population.
Then, when Russia went to war against Georgia in August 2008, the Kremlin justified its deployment of Russian military forces in Abkhazia and South Ossetia by saying those forces were needed to protect Russia citizens in the separatist regions.
Russian media reports say Russia also has issued its passports to nearly half of the residents of Moldova’s Moscow-backed breakaway region of Transdniester.
That policy has raised concerns in Chisinau that the Kremlin may use a similar argument of defending its citizens in order to justify future Russian military operations in Transdniester.
With reporting by RFE/RL's Ukrainian, Georgian, and Moldovan Services, Reuters, and AP