Ukraine’s President-elect Volodymyr Zelensky said in a Facebook post this weekend that he would make Russians first in line for Ukrainian citizenship because they “suffer more than everyone else” under Russian President Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian regime.
Zelensky added that Ukraine, “a free country,” would offer citizenship to “representatives of all nations who suffer from authoritarian and corrupt regimes,” first and foremost Russians.
The president-elect, who will take office in June, issued the statement in response to Putin stating on Saturday that Moscow, which has already eased residency requirements for Ukrainians, would consider offering citizenship to Ukrainians trapped in the Donbass region that Russia has occupied for years through pro-Russia “rebels.” Much of eastern Ukraine has endured wartime conditions since 2014, when separatist groups launched an attack to leave Kyiv’s orbit. An estimated 13,000 people have died in the conflict.
Russia illegally annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in 2014. Ukrainian politicians have since warned that Putin aspires to annex the entire country; his offer of citizenship to Ukrainians elicited further panic from those who see it as a ploy to control more Ukrainian territory.
Zelensky suggested only gullible or criminal Ukrainians would be interested in becoming Russian in his Facebook post, according to the Kyiv Post‘s translation.
“First of all, I would advise the Russian authorities against attempting to seduce Ukrainian citizens with Russian passports. Of course, there may be people who are still under the influence of propaganda or hope to earn more money to escape criminal responsibility,” he wrote. “But what sets Ukraine apart is that here we have free speech, media, and Internet. And that is why we know what Russian passport really means – the right to be arrested for a peaceful protest, the right to have no free and fair elections, the right to forget that inalienable human rights and freedoms even exist.”
Instead of taking Russian citizenship, Zelensky suggested Russians seek to become Ukrainians and promised to facilitate the move.
“We will provide Ukrainian citizenship to representatives of all nations who suffer from authoritarian and corrupt regimes. First of all, that is Russians, who today likely suffer more than everyone else,” he said.
Zelensky added that Putin should not “waste time trying to lure Ukrainians” as “Ukrainians are free people in a free country” and “should not be talked to in the language of threats and military and economic pressure.”
The president-elect said he was open to talks with Putin and “normalization” of the bilateral relationship, but that the latter was impossible so long as Russia was engaging in a military invasion of the country.
“The real normalization will only take place after de-occupation of both Donbass and Crimea,” he said.
The officials under outgoing Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko reacted to Putin’s offer with similar disdain.
“This insanity continues as if in Orwell’s work. Another intention [of Vladimir Putin] is to plant Russian passports throughout Ukraine. What’s next? USSR revival?” asked Ukraine’s U.N. Ambassador Volodymyr Yelchenko. “And the UN Security Council will continue to wait patiently while ‘calling for all sides’?”
“The practice of providing citizenship in occupied territories was actively used in Europe by the Nazis,” Olena Zerkal, deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine for the European Integration, said of the measure. “The Nazis imposed German citizenship to the people of the occupied territories, they forcibly conscripted people into the army and forced citizens to work.”
Poroshenko’s administration is preparing sanctions against Russia for easing passport requirements for Ukrainians, Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin announced.
“Ukrainian diplomats are now actively working on creating a new wave of political pressure on the Russian Federation, as well as preparing additional Ukrainian sanctions against Russia, both sectoral and economic ones,” he said on Friday.
Putin signed a new policy last week allowing Ukrainians living in the eastern occupied territories to apply for Russian passports. On Saturday, he suggested the policy would soon expand to full citizenship.
“We are considering whether to grant Ukrainian citizens our citizenship using a simplified procedure,” he told reporters during a press conference in Beijing, where he had traveled for last weekend’s global summit on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a Chinese program to bring all global transportation infrastructure under the control of the Communist Party of China (CPC).
Following the publication of Zelensky’s Facebook post, Putin claimed satisfaction with his suggestion.
“This indicates we will come to terms, possibly, because we have a great deal in common,” he said, referring to Russians and Ukrainians generally, according to Russian news outlet TASS. “I’ve said more than once that Ukrainians and Russians are brotherly peoples. Moreover, I believe that they are one people – with their own cultural, linguistic and historical features, but in fact one people.”
“If we have common citizenship, both Russians and Ukrainians will stand to gain. We will be stronger and more successful,” Putin said.
Zelensky was elected to the presidency this month in a landslide, defeating incumbent Poroshenko. Prior to running for president, Zelensky was an actor and comedian who played a head of state on television. He enters the nation’s highest office with no political experience.