Russia eases citizenship rules in Ukraine separatist areas, drawing swift rebuke from president-elect

Days after Ukrainians took to the polls to elect a comedian and actor as its new president, the Russian bear is already roaring.

Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree on Wednesday that would make it easier for people living in parts of Ukraine held by Russia-backed separatists to fast-track passport applications, drawing a swift rebuke from the president-elect.

The decree, which was published on the Kremlin's website, states that some residents in the parts of Ukraine's Donetsk and Luhansk regions that are under separatist control will have their passport applications considered in less than three months. Those granted Russian citizenship would have to swear allegiance to Russia.

Putin claimed the new law was "purely a humanitarian issue," claiming people in Donetsk and Luhansk are suffering and "have no civil rights left." He told lawmakers in St. Petersburg he had "no desire to create problems for the new Ukrainian leadership."

Only holders of ID cards issued by separatist authorities will be eligible for the expedited procedure offered by Putin. Separatist authorities said Wednesday that they had issued about 300,000 such ID cards in the area with an estimated population of 3.7 million.

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Ukrainian officials urged residents in the separatist regions to not apply for Russian passports and asked the European Union to take "prompt and decisive" action, according to Reuters.

A Ukrainian serviceman makes smokescreen against military drones at a position near the front line as the conflict continues, in Mariinka, Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine, Saturday, April 20, 2019.

A Ukrainian serviceman makes smokescreen against military drones at a position near the front line as the conflict continues, in Mariinka, Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine, Saturday, April 20, 2019. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

The office of new Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said the ultimate goal remains to achieve peace, but the latest action by Russia showed “another evident confirmation for the world community of Russia’s true role as an aggressor state, which is waging a war against Ukraine."

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Outgoing President Petro Poroshenko called Putin's decree "yet another unprecedented act of Russian interference in Ukrainian affairs" and accused Moscow of undermining the peace process.

Poroshenko lost Sunday's runoff election by huge margins to comedian-actor Zelenskiy, who is set to be sworn in next month. Zelenskiy, who played his country's president on television, has said his priority as president is ending the war in the east.

Putin's decision could trigger a major escalation of the war that started in eastern Ukraine in 2014 and shatter hopes for peace in the area.

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Oleksandr Turchynov, secretary of the Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council, said on Wednesday that "Putin is laying the legal groundwork" for an overt offensive in the east, where clandestine Russian troops led rebel offensives in 2014 to 2015. Turchynov referred to a Russian law which allows the use of force to protect Russian nationals abroad.

A Ukrainian serviceman guards a position near the front line as the conflict continues, in Mariinka, Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine, Saturday, April 20, 2019. The conflict in eastern Ukraine has killed more than 13,000 people since 2014.

A Ukrainian serviceman guards a position near the front line as the conflict continues, in Mariinka, Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine, Saturday, April 20, 2019. The conflict in eastern Ukraine has killed more than 13,000 people since 2014. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

After annexing Crimea in a hastily called 2014 referendum, Russia threw its weight behind separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine but stopped short of recognizing their independence vote. Ukraine and almost all the world views Russia's annexation of Crimea as illegal.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.