Report. A Moscow newspaper confirmed reports this week that Russia is distributing passports to citizens of the Ukrainian breakaway region. The move is a soft annexation and a response to demographic shifts.

Putin’s answer to population drain: hand out passports in Donbass

The news had been circulating for a week, but on Tuesday, the always well-informed pro-industrialist Russian daily Kommersant confirme through high-placed Kremlin sources that the Russian Federation will start giving Russian passports to the citizens of the self-proclaimed republics of the Donbass region. According to the Moscow paper, “Russian authorities plan to allow residents of the Republics of Donetsk and Lugansk to obtain Russian citizenship in a simplified manner. Putin’s decree will be published immediately after the run-off in Ukraine.”

Last April, the Ukrainian newspaper Strana had already reported, based on sources within the governments of the two separatist republics, that application forms for requesting Russian passports had been distributed in the region’s schools. From March 16, the Russian government has also opened new offices in the neighboring province of Rostov 3 for the management of immigration-related procedures.

These measures are leading up to what would amount to a soft annexation of the region by the Russian Federation, with serious repercussions on the already-dire relations between Moscow and Kiev. According to a number of analysts, the Kremlin is no longer committed to the implementation of the Kiev Agreements—even if Zelensky were to win the Ukrainian presidency—and wants to move towards a de facto recognition of the “rebel republics.” This would be yet another step toward the Balkanization of Ukraine, given the fact that Romania and Hungary, its neighbors to the west, have been giving passports to Ukrainian citizens living in proximity to their borders for some time now.

Putin’s move also comes in response to the practical needs of the population living within the borders of the secessionist regions in Donbass: for the past five years, the residents of these areas have only been able to travel to Russia, since they no longer have valid passports.

“This is an impasse that is threatening to escalate the situation,” an anonymous “Deep Throat”-like Kremlin source told Kommersant. Compounding the problem is the fact that, thanks to the association agreement with the EU, Ukrainians living elsewhere in the country are now able to travel to Europe without a visa. The Russians know that over the long term, these travel rights might prove very tempting to those who live in Donetsk and Lugansk as well.

However, the decision by the Russian government can also be seen as a response to much broader imperatives. This year, the Russian population—after a brief recovery during the boom of the Russian economy in the last decade—has returned to its trajectory of inexorable decline, with 300,000 fewer Russian citizens in 2018 than in the previous year. The experts are saying this downward trend is set to accelerate during the coming years, unless drastic measures are taken.

Given the decline in births and the apparent drop in Russian male fertility, the Kremlin intends to focus on the Russification of the Russian-speaking populations of several former Soviet republics of the so-called “near abroad.” Thus, their plan goes much further than granting citizenship to the 1.5 million residents of Lugansk and Donetsk: according to the calculations of the Russian government, the country could add as many as five million new Russian citizens by 2025.

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