As Russian troops capture the remaining parts of the Donbass region, President Vladimir Putin has signed an order to allow all Ukrainians an easy path to Russian citizenship — a move likely aimed at further weakening Ukraine’s statehood.
In late June and early July, more than three months into the war that Moscow calls a “special military operation,” Russian forces seized the key industrial city of Severodonetsk, then a week later conquered nearby Lysychansk, the last Ukrainian stronghold in the area. Both lie in the Ukrainian province of Luhansk — territory claimed by the Russia-backed Lugansk People’s Republic (LNR).
Prior to Putin’s Monday, July 11 decree, the Kremlin had in 2019 begun offering residents of the LNR, as well as people in the similar Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) to the south, a simplified program to gain Russian citizenship.
The two rebel states, whose claimed territory comprises the industrial Donbass region, have been part of Russia’s proxy conflict against the Ukrainian government since 2014, and are now at the center of the current campaign, which began a day after Russia officially recognized their sovereignty on Feb. 23.
The LNR and DNR remain unrecognized by nearly every other country on earth.
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Russia has since expanded the fast-track passport offer to other parts of Ukraine, including the portions of Zaporizhzhia and Kherson provinces currently occupied by the Russian army.
The Russian passport move appears to be part of Putin’s strategy, which could also involve annexation of territory into the Russian Federation. The Russian president set the stage for such moves even before the invasion, writing an essay last summer claiming Russians and Ukrainians are one people and attempting to diminish the legitimacy of Ukraine as an independent nation.
Between 2019, when the procedure was first introduced for the residents of Donetsk and Luhansk, and this year, more than 720,000 people living in the rebel-held areas in the two regions — about 18 percent of the population – have received Russian passports.
Fast-track Russian citizenship came to Zaporizhzhia and Kherson in late May, months after the Russians occupied those areas.
The Monday passport announcement came as Russian shelling of Ukraine’s second-largest city killed at least six people on Monday and injured 31 others, prosecutors and local officials said. Hours earlier, Russian troops launched three missile strikes on Kharkiv, which one official described as “absolute terrorism.”
While Russian land, naval, and air forces have struck many parts of Ukraine in the invasion, their efforts have shifted to the Donbass in recent months.
In April, after an inconclusive weeks-long campaign to encircle the Ukrainian capital of Kiev and take the country’s second-largest city, Kharkov, the Russians retreated from nearly the entire northern front, redeploying its divisions to support the LNR and DNR rebels’ advance in the eastern part of the country.
Tens of thousands of people have been killed in the war, with estimates of military casualties on both sides varying wildly.
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The Ukrainian governor of Luhansk region, Serhyi Haidai, said Russia launched more than 20 artillery, mortar and rocket strikes on the region overnight and its forces were pressing toward the border with the Donetsk region, much of which still remains under Ukrainian control.
“We are trying to contain the Russians’ armed formations along the entire front line,” Haidai wrote on Telegram.
Last week, Russia captured the last major stronghold of Ukrainian resistance in Luhansk, the city of Lysychansk. Analysts predicted Moscow’s troops likely would take some time to rearm and regroup.
But “so far there has been no operational pause announced by the enemy. He is still attacking and shelling our lands with the same intensity as before,” Haidai said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.