The Russian president is already testing Ukraine's president-elect Volodymyr Zelenskiy. In fact, Putin's latest decree can be seen as pseudo-legal preparation for military moves, says guest columnist Reinhard Veser.
Anyone who still believes that constructive steps can be taken under the current Russian leadership towards resolving the conflict in Ukraine is going to have to exercise the powers of their imagination a little more after this week.
Three days after the presidential election in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin made it clear he is not interested in easing the tension between Moscow and Kyiv. There's no other way to interpret the decree he issued on Wednesday, which makes it easier for residents of the so-called "People's Republics" of Donetsk and Luhansk to get Russian passports.
A special form of annexation
Putin's decree is a provocation. What he's aiming to do is to separate the territories in eastern Ukraine, already effectively occupied by Russia, even more clearly and permanently from the Ukrainian state. It's a special form of annexation: Officially, the Kremlin recognizes that the regions still belong to Ukraine — while affiliating the people who live there with Russia.
This is a further weakening of the accords mediated by Germany and France and agreed on in Minsk in February 2015 with the aim of resolving the conflict. The Kremlin has never made any serious moves to implement them. Nonetheless, upholding the Minsk compromise, at least formally, is still important as it's an obstacle to further violent escalation. It also provides a framework for a minimum of humanitarian cooperation in the conflict zone.
In Ukraine, Putin's passport decree is being seen as pseudo-legal preparation for deploying the Russian army openly against Ukraine, rather than covertly, as it has been doing to date.
Russia has already used the protection of Russian citizens as an excuse to invade a neighboring country in the past: in Georgia in 2008, after it had distributed huge numbers of Russian passports to the inhabitants of the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Even if the Kremlin doesn’t have any such plans at the moment, the mere fact that the possibility has now been raised increases tensions in the conflict zone.
Second affront to the new president
The passport decree is not Moscow’s first affront to Ukrainian President-elect Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Shortly before the runoff vote, when his victory was already assured, the Kremlin imposed an export ban on Russian oil and petroleum products to Ukraine, which now has to scramble to quickly find new suppliers for more than 30% of its demand.
Is the Kremlin hoping it will be able to tip Ukraine into chaos when the inexperienced new man takes over? Either way, Moscow's behavior does not bode well for the immediate future. This makes it even more important that the Ukrainians succeed in having an orderly transfer of power — and that the West reinforces its support for Ukraine, particularly at this critical time.
Reinhard Veser is a German journalist for the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, where he covers the politics of Eastern Europe.