Behind the Lines: Passport to the Front| ukraine news
Moscow has stepped up its campaign to force Ukrainians to apply for Russian passports as it seeks to legitimize its annexation of the occupied territories and integrate them into the Russian Federation. It’s a process that began in 2014 in Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, using an evolving set of tactics to erase Ukrainian nationality.
In May, three months after the full-scale invasion, a decree eased the process of granting Russian citizenship to residents of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia oblasts, and since people were forced to hold Russian papers, putting them in line for conscription to the Moscow forces.
There are different models, but the conscription of local residents occurs in the occupied territories. In Crimea, they recruit for the Russian army and the Wagner group. In the occupied areas of Kherson Oblast, conscription orders are issued to collaborators or persons whom the Russian forces consider loyal. In Zaporizhzhia oblast, residents are called up to units of the so-called people’s militia, while in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts almost all men are called up, according to Ukrainian intelligence, and sometimes women.
Occupation authorities have used a carrot and stick approach to documentation, announcing that from March 2023 only Russian passport holders will receive pensions and other social benefits in the occupied territories . Because they banned the circulation of the hryvnia, the Ukrainian currency, people are increasingly dependent on these ruble payments.
“At the beginning of the occupation, they gave money (social payments) without any passports and tried to ‘bribe’ the population,” said Yurii Sobolevskyi, first deputy chairman of the Kherson oblast council. “But now they seem to have a plan from Moscow on passporting.”
Access to medical services is also denied to those who do not have a Russian passport or proof of having applied for a passport. In occupied Tokmak, Zaporizhzhia oblast, offices have been set up in hospitals where patients arriving for treatment must apply for Russian papers. “People are told that they need insurance, and it is provided only to citizens of the Russian Federation,” Sobolevskyi said.
In the Zaporizhzhia region, people with disabilities and people who care for them can only receive monthly aid if they re-register their documents, the National Resistance Center of Ukraine reported. The main requirement for guardians is to obtain a Russian passport. At the same time, people must write a statement renouncing their Ukrainian citizenship.
Such actions are aimed at “strengthening” Russia’s claim to the region by changing its demographic composition, the Center said. For the same purpose, Russia has created favorable conditions for its own citizens who wish to settle in the occupied areas, offering them preferential mortgages to buy property.
Another forced passporting strategy is to fire people for the wrong papers. In occupied Horlivka, Donetsk Oblast, public sector workers have been ordered to get Russian passports by July 1 or lose their jobs. Similar threats were reported in settlements in Donetsk, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia oblasts.
Occupation forces also threatened to seize vehicles if their owners did not have Russian registration papers. In Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson oblasts, drivers have been told to re-register their vehicles by May 1 in accordance with Russian laws – a process that requires a Russian passport – or risk losing them. No Russian passport, no car.
The move follows a similar strategy last year when real estate and land documents in Zaporizhzhia Oblast had to be re-registered under Russian law. The occupiers said they would “nationalize” the properties of those who refused.
“They came to ordinary small entrepreneurs at the end of April and said ‘either you will register your business according to our new rules and standards or we will burn everything here tomorrow and you will have nothing'”, Rehina Kharchenko, a deputy from the city council of Zaporizhzhia, said in an interview with Radio Liberty Novyny Pryazovia. “By arguing with a person who has a machine gun and full power, you understand that you will not defeat them.”
The dilemma for business owners receiving such ultimatums is that if they collaborate with Russian forces and provide them with minibuses, storage space or premises, they may be found guilty of aiding the enemy after the liberation of territories. If they refuse, it will be taken from them at gunpoint.
As Russia lines up the next cohort of recruits from the occupied areas into its armed forces, high school students in Mariupol and the surrounding district have been told they must obtain Russian passports if they wish to receive school leaving certificates.
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On March 14, the Russian Duma passed a law allowing Ukrainian citizens holding Russian passports to renounce their Ukrainian citizenship after filing an application with the relevant Russian authorities. Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry rejected the legislation, saying Russia was trying to legitimize its attempt to annex Ukrainian territory and impose illegal passporting of Ukrainian residents.
Ukraine does not recognize the forced automatic acquisition of Russian citizenship by residents of the occupied territories, the ministry said. Forced passporting is not a reason for losing Ukrainian citizenship.
Kyiv authorities say Ukrainians forced to take Russian passports will not be prosecuted after release. There will be criminal liability only for officials who acquire Russian citizenship and those who contribute to the passporting program. An official taking a Russian passport risks being imprisoned for 10 to 15 years, said Iryna Vereshchuk, Minister for Reintegration of Ukraine’s Temporarily Occupied Territories.
Prior to the large-scale invasion, Russia handed over more than 700,000 passports to residents of the occupied territories of Luhansk and Donetsk, according to Russian officials, while in Crimea forced passporting affected around 2.5 million people. ‘Ukrainians.
It’s impossible to say how many people have been forced to apply for Russian passports since the February invasion, Sobolevskyi said. “We will be able to see it after the release. It is clear that the figures announced by the occupants are not close, ”he said. “We saw it in the liberated part of the Kherson region. They said they handed over all those passports and that was not true.
Residents of the occupied territories tried to keep their Ukrainian papers, even after being forced to apply for Russian ones, Sobolevskyi said. Sometimes they simply claim to have lost them when the occupants demand that they return them.
Ukrainians living in the occupied territories are hostages facing an impossible choice. They must obtain Russian passports if they want to obtain a pension, social assistance or medical treatment for themselves or their family, but the price is enormous.
Once they have Russian papers, they are likely to be drafted into Moscow’s army and risk being forced to fight – and die – for their oppressors.
Elina Beketova is a Democracy Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), specializing in the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine. She has worked as a journalist, editor and TV presenter for various news channels in Kharkiv and Kyiv, and currently contributes to the team of translators at Ukrainska Pravda, Ukraine’s largest online newspaper.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the role of foreign policy in Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or of the Center for European Policy Analysis.
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CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the role of foreign policy in Europe and North America.