MOSCOW — President Vladimir Putin of Russia on Thursday defended his decision to fast-track Russian citizenship for some residents of separatist regions of eastern Ukraine, a move widely seen as possibly prolonging the war there and testing the mettle of the country’s novice president-elect.
“The passport question is purely a humanitarian matter,” Putin said at a news conference in Vladivostok, Russia, after a summit meeting with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un. Given that both the current and future Ukrainian leaders appeared intent on isolating the region, Putin said, “we cannot just look at it calmly.”
Ukraine, which does not allow dual citizenship, joined several Western nations, including France, Germany and the United States, in expressing outrage at the decision, calling it an attack on Ukrainian sovereignty.
The decision “show’s Russia’s intention to further destabilize Ukraine and to exacerbate the conflict,” the European Union said in a statement, calling on Russia to avoid steps that will impede the reintegration of the breakaway territories into Ukraine.
The U.N. Security Council plans to discuss the issue in a special session Thursday.
The move was a standard part of Russia’s playbook in creating and manipulating frozen conflicts in countries of the former Soviet Union that seek to remove themselves from the Kremlin’s embrace — principally, Georgia and Ukraine. Populating the area with Russian citizens who theoretically need protection provides the Kremlin with a built-in excuse for further military intervention, should the need arise.
The new method for expediting citizenship reduces the process to three months, but not all the estimated 3.7 million people in the separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk would be eligible right away. To apply, residents first need to obtain passports from the governments of the breakaway republics.
Government officials, members of the military and separatist leaders would be first in line for the passports — about 300,000 of them, according to estimates in the Russian news media.
Aleksandr Morozov, an analyst based in Prague, said the initial anticipated numbers could grow if the conflict drags on. The war sparked there by a Russian-backed military uprising in 2014 has left 13,000 dead.
If the conflict continues for 10 years, Morozov said, “then up to 70% of the population will have Russian passports there. In that case no conflict resolution will be possible at all.”
Some analysts argued that the Russian move was an attempt to break the impasse over implementation of the 2015 Minsk accords, meant to end the fighting. Many Western governments have linked the fulfillment of those accords with lifting economic sanctions against Russia.
But as those talks have stalled, Ukraine has effectively cut off the territories, forcing Russia to foot the costly bill for energy, public-sector salaries and some food aid.
“Ukraine refuses to recognize them as its citizens, imposing an economic blockade, not allowing them to vote, using armed force against them,” Vladislav Y. Surkov, the Kremlin aide who runs Ukraine policy, told the TASS news agency. “After they will receive passports, people will feel more protected, they will feel freer.”
Russia has shown little appetite for annexing the territories outright, given the costs involved.
The passport issue might also help resolve one aspect of the conflict. Volodymyr O. Zelensky, the television comedian who defeated President Petro O. Poroshenko in the presidential election this month, has said he would not grant amnesty to anyone who fought against Ukraine in the war. So, granting Russian passports would be a way to ease pro-Russian veterans from Ukraine.
In addition, Putin has failed in his attempts to bolster Russia’s flagging demographic numbers, so an influx of new citizens would be welcome. Since the conflict erupted in 2014, some 400,000 Ukrainians have obtained Russian citizenship, Russian news outlets have reported, many of them in Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014.
The Kremlin was happy to see the defeat of Poroshenko, an implacable opponent, and hopes that escalating the conflict now will force Zelensky to make relations with the Kremlin a priority. If the incoming government worked to implement a peace plan, Putin said, “we will do everything to normalize the situation in Ukraine’s southeast.”
As usual, Putin first defended the move by saying that other countries do the same. Hungary, Poland and Romania issue passports to ethnic minorities living in neighboring states, he said. The difference, of course, is that they did not invade their neighbors, as Russia did with Ukraine.
Putin said the blockade of the breakaway regions made it difficult for residents there to travel or receive basic government services like education.
“What about the fate of people who live on these territories?” Putin said. “Are they going to be left behind, live in isolation as usual?”
Putin said that the Minsk accords called for the gradual reintegration of the separatist areas into Ukraine, but no steps had been taken. “Nothing has been restored: economic links, financial relations, nothing,” he said. “Humanitarian problems are created for people.”
Ukraine’s Parliament responded to the Russian move by passing a law cementing the centrality of Ukrainian as the country’s official language and further marginalizing Russian. Russian outrage over a similar proposal in 2014 helped to set off the current conflict.
The law, championed by the outgoing president, would require civil servants, soldiers, doctors and teachers to work in Ukrainian, as well as require television and film distribution to be 90% Ukrainian, while printed news media and books would be at least 50%.
Zelensky, the president-elect who is clearly more comfortable speaking Russian, issued a statement on Facebook saying that he planned to “thoroughly analyze the law to ensure that it protects the constitutional rights and interests of every Ukrainian citizen.”