Why Putin is forcing occupied Ukrainians to become Russian citizens

Analysis: Russia’s forced ‘passportisation’ scheme is designed to reduce the number of Ukrainian citizens

Thousands of people living in Russian-occupied southern and eastern Ukraine are being forced to apply for Russian passports at the cost of their Ukrainian citizenship, following a decree issued by Vladimir Putin last month.

Those who refuse face prison or deportation. They can also lose access to humanitarian aid or their pension. In effect, the Russian state is saying to these residents: you are no longer Ukrainian (even though Russia permits dual citizenship).

This is a new form of terror by Russia against Ukrainians living in the occupied Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions.

Two factors appear to be driving this passport campaign. The first is Russia’s regional elections, scheduled for 10 September, which will also take place in the newly occupied areas of Ukraine – the Kremlin needs residents’ votes for this charade. The second is the need to keep feeding the Russian war machine with newly mobilised citizens.

But, ultimately, it’s about Russia’s denial of Ukrainian identity and statehood.

Putin signed this new decree on Russian citizenship on 27 April. It says citizens of Ukraine who were living in the annexed territories before 2022 and have not yet become Russian citizens are now classed as foreigners.

Under this law, foreign citizens can be deported if they threaten the national security of the Russian Federation or protest against the constitutional system of the Russian Federation. What this means in effect is that if you do not renounce your Ukrainian citizenship, you will simply be deported from your homeland.

‘Passportisation’, or distributing passports in a foreign territory, is not a new move by the Kremlin. It began in earnest in 2017, three years after Russia first occupied eastern Ukraine. After the so-called “people’s republics” were illegally set up in Donetsk and Luhansk regions, the authorities there started issuing their own passports, mostly to their own public servants. A decree issued by Vladimir Putin in 2017 allowed the Russian authorities to recognise these documents.

It became a mass issue in 2019, when new laws and new passport offices meant that thousands of people in the occupied territories were issued with Russian passports. In 2019, 299,000 Russian passports were issued; in 2020, 409,000 and in 2021, 585,000.

By the end of 2021, the Kremlin wanted one million residents of Luhansk and Donetsk regions to have applied for Russian passports. Fifty-three passport offices helped them do it.

In turn, residents took part in Russia’s constitutional referendum in 2020 and the parliamentary elections in 2021. In effect, Russia sought to demonstrate that Russian citizens were living in Luhansk and Donetsk, whom Moscow would have to protect in the event of military aggression by Kyiv.

Since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the Russian authorities have further simplified the citizenship process, making it easier to complete forms and speeding up decision-making. This has permitted, for example, orphans and children without guardians to acquire Russian citizenship very easily, in an effort to integrate them into Russian families more quickly.

Some residents have staged quiet resistance against passportisation. Many have not made their written renunciation of Ukrainian citizenship, which has led the Russian authorities to use administrative arrests (15 days), – which are effectively civic offences, rather than criminal. Between April and early May, more than 1,000 people had been arrested for not writing a waiver of their Ukrainian citizenship.

But this kind of repression was not enough to persuade everyone to do as Moscow wanted – hence Putin’s new decree in late April.

In the end, the goal of Russia’s passportisation is not to increase the number of Russian citizens. The main aim is to reduce the number of Ukrainian citizens.