In a new challenge to Ukraine on Wednesday, President Vladimir Putin offered Russian passports to residents of eastern Ukraine.
Putin did so to consolidate its control over Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk provinces (they call provinces “oblasts”) and give Russia a pretext for escalating towards Kiev if desired. Putin’s time here is not surprising. Just a few days after the election of Volodymyr Zelenskiy as Ukraine’s next president, Putin is shaping the ground in eastern Ukraine to put the negotiating place in his favor. He dares to say that outgoing Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko is now a lame duck and does not run the risk of escalation against Russia or the rebel forces in Donetsk and Luhansk.
(Image via Google Maps; Comments from Tom Rogan / Washington Examiner)
But the citizenship message is designed only for a broader strategic goal: namely, Russia’s assured control of the Crimea and all territories east of Mariupol-Donetsk-Luhansk corridor. Putin wants Zelenskiy to enter the office in June to cut a good deal. An agreement where Russian supportive rebels stop their artillery strikes in areas under Ukrainian government control, and in return, Zelenskiy stops competing for Russian control zones. Putin knows that this mutual agreement is crucial if he is to get the European Union’s sanction.
Therefore, we see this citizenship message and Putin’s dominance over Ukrainian waters in the Azovas Sea. The former KGB official wants Zelenskiy to see only two choices: Cut a deal with Moscow or face an ever-increasing Russian pressure. And the citizenship gambit gives Putin an impetus to use greater force “to protect Russian citizens”.
The United States should not accept it.
While President Trump has done more than President Barack Obama in resisting Putin’s aggression in Ukraine, the latest act should meet stricter US sanctions against Moscow. In addition, in proportion to Zelenskiy’s commitment to the fight against corruption, the US should sell Kiev more military equipment. That answer will strengthen Zelenskiy’s negotiating hand and make it clear to Putin that he cannot dictate the future alone.