Russian President Vladimir Putin signed an order on Wednesday simplifying the procedure for obtaining a Russian passport for residents of separatist-controlled eastern Ukraine, prompting calls from Kiev for more international sanctions.
With the two Minsk accords Russia offered to pressure back rebel Donbass under Kiev rule albeit with some autonomy. Poroshenko first signed up for that, but then just as quickly renounced a solution of that type.
Kiev can’t reclaim rebel Donbass without the help of Russia, but there isn’t and will likely never be a Ukrainian politician self-assured enough to take the political risk of granting Donbass autonomy to do it, and Kremlin for its own domestic political reasons can’t push the rebels under Kiev without it, even if it wanted to.
That makes Minsk dead, under Zelensky as much as under Poroshenko. Moscow likely held off on the citizenship/passport decision to avoid unnecessarily boosting Poroshenko in the election, but that it didn’t even wait for Zelensky to be sworn in, goes to show it understands the latter isn’t fundamentally different. In reality Zelensky shares the exact same nationalist approach on East Ukraine, he just focused on the economy and corruption more — something that Poroshenko who had failed on these two could not do.
Russia had previously allowed residents of Abkhazia and South Ossetia which had broken away from Georgia to seek Russian passports (and thus citizenship) on the grounds that they were otherwise unable to travel and isolated from the world in their tiny ethnic enclaves. It took nearly five years but finally it could scarcely do less for its own Russians-Ukrainians of rebel East Ukraine.
When Georgia sought to reincorporate South Ossetia militarily and invaded in 2008 the fact the Ossetians were Russian citizens (as well as that Georgians had killed Russian peacekeepers patrolling the cease-fire line with the Georgians because the Georgians would not accept patrols with Ossetians) was cited as the reason Russian army swooped into South Ossetia and push the Georgian offensive back. Immediately after Moscow recognized South Ossetia as a country in its own right, independent of Georgia.
That inhabitants of rebel Donbass will now have Russian citizenship and passport makes it all the more certain that in the case of a large-scale Ukrainian army offensive to retake the region for Kiev Russia will intervene, including if necessary by sending the Russian army in openly. And in the aftermath of such an offensive Moscow will contemplate recognizing the independence the two Donbass republics proclaimed in 2014 as they sought to be allowed reincorporation into Russia that was granted to Crimea.
The passport/citizenship decision is significant. I would wager that it is now probably likelier that Donbass will eventually be allowed to join Russia, than it is that it will ever return under Kiev rule.