France and Germany have condemned the Kremlin's decision to accept passports issued by authorities controlled by pro-Russian rebels. Meanwhile, a new ceasefire deal is going into effect in Eastern Ukraine.
Germany's government on Monday said that Russia's decision to recognize passports issued by separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine "contradicts everything that was agreed in Minsk and is therefore unacceptable," referring to the Minsk Agreement seeking an end to the conflict in Ukraine.
"The recognition of travel documents of the self-declared, so-called People's Republics of Lugansk and Donetsk undermines the unity of Ukraine," said Steffen Seibert, the spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Russian President Vladimir Putin had ordered Russian authorities on Saturday to recognize civil registration documents issued in separatist-held regions Lugansk and Donetsk, a decision that Kyiv called a "provocation."
'France regrets this decision'
France's foreign ministry on Monday also called Russia's new policy unacceptable and against the spirit of the Minsk peace accord, saying that "France regrets this decision."
The passports issued in the self-declared people's republic of Donetsk closely resemble Russian passports
Paris said it wanted Moscow to use its influence over the separatists to ensure application of the terms of the Minsk peace deal, saying: "It is the only way of ensuring a lasting solution to the crisis in east Ukraine," the foreign ministry statement said.
Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Monday called the decision was a humanitarian move, meant to help struggling residents in the rebel regions facing transport blockades imposed by Ukrainian nationalist volunteer battalions. People with papers issued by separatists are now allowed to travel to Russia without a visa. The Kremlin said the decree issued by President Putin was only "temporary" until a "political solution" based on the Minsk accords could be found for eastern Ukraine.
Authorities in counties held by separatists started issuing their own passports roughly a year ago. These documents closely resemble Russian passports, bearing a two-headed eagle on a red backdrop.
Ten thousand killed since 2014
Since pro-Russian rebels revolted against Kyiv's newly-installed pro-Western government in early 2014, the armed conflict in Ukraine's mostly Russian-speaking East has cost some 10,000 lives.
In 2015, Ukrainian and pro-Russian separatists signed on the so-called Minsk peace agreement. The sparring parties were meant to withdraw heavy weaponry from the frontline to create a buffer zone in order to bring peace to the region. BothUkrainian and separatist troops have repeatedly broken the agreement since then.
Foreign ministers Pavlo Klimkin (Ukraine), Jean-Marc Ayrault (France), Sergey Lavrov (Russia) and Sigmar Gabriel (Germany) brokered a new peace agreement in Munich this weekend
In recent weeks, fighting escalated in the region, with some areas experiencing the heaviest artillery fire of the past two years, refocusing global attention on the simmering conflict that - along with the crisis in Syria - has strained the relationship between Russia and most Western countries.
This prompted Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine to call for renewed efforts to implement the much-violated Minsk deal. At the Munich Security Conference, a deal was brokered over the weekend, obligating both parties to cease fire and withdraw weapons from the frontline starting on Monday.
As of Monday morning, both Ukrainian troops and separatists said that the other side was complying with the agreement.
mb/msh (AFP, dpa, Reuters)