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What can passports tell us about Putin's intentions?

- March 4, 2014

 Colonel Yuli Mamchor (C-R), commander of the Ukrainian military garrison at the Belbek airbase, and a colleague bearing the regiment flag, confront troops under Russian command occupying the Belbek airbase in Crimea on March 4, 2014 in Lubimovka, Ukraine.  (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
The following is a guest post from American University historian Eric Lohr, the author of Russian Citizenship: From Empire to Soviet Union (Harvard University Press, 2012).  In it, he asks whether the handing out of passports to Russian-speaking citizens in Ukraine suggests that Putin has a long-term plan in Crimea, and perhaps more broadly in Ukraine. Links to previous Monkey Cage posts regarding developments in Ukraine can be found at the bottom of this post.
With Russia now occupying Crimea, a key indicator of Russian intentions there and in other parts of Ukraine may be whether it bestows Russian citizenship on Russian-speakers living on Ukrainian territory.
According to existing Russian law and generally accepted international practice, citizenship is normally granted only to individuals residing within the country. However, the Russian Federation has waived the normal residence requirements and waiting periods before to naturalize populations outside its borders. In the Georgian territories Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russia allowed thousands of natives of the region to naturalize by expedited procedures during a controversial naturalization drive in the summer of 2002 and sporadically afterwards, then expanded this program during and after the war. According to the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on the Conflict in Georgia, this provided a justification for intervention (to protect “Russian citizens”) and a legal means to meld the regions into the Russian sphere after Russia recognized the two areas as independent states (a recognition that the rest of the world has not endorsed).
Although evidence is contradictory and scarce, there are indications that naturalizations are already underway. Just last week a bill was introduced in the Russian State Duma to create a simplified procedure for “Russian-speaking citizens of the former USSR, irrespective of nationality, who are in danger of a real threat of ethno-cultural, political, or professional discrimination” to acquire Russian citizenship.
Several reports claim that the Russian consulate in Crimea has been offering expedited Russian citizenship to members of the disbanded Ukrainian special police force (the Berkut). The Russian Consul General in Simferopol, Viacheslav Svetlichnyi, has been quoted as saying that Russian passports may be offered to other Ukrainian citizens apart from Berkut members, but decisions will be made “in stages.”
The Russian Ministry of Interior has indicated that it is ready to hire Ukrainian police officers who left their jobs or were fired and grant them citizenship. The Ukrainian Minister of the Interior has claimed that Russian emissaries and military personnel throughout Crimea are offering members of the Crimean officer corps Russian passports in an expedited procedure.
Ukrainian officials are taking these actions very seriously. The Supreme Rada is planning to consider a law to make dual citizenship a criminal offense punishable by up to three to 10 years in jail for individuals who fail to inform the authorities of their acquisition of foreign citizenship.
This evidence points toward a Russian intention to make its new role in Crimea permanent. That the measures extend to former police and are not restricted to the territory of Crimea suggests a more ambitious set of goals.
Note: This post was updated to reflect the fact that the bill proposed to the Rada would make failing to inform the authorities of acquisition of dual citizenship a punishable crime, not the act of acquiring dual citizenship itself. h/t to @tanyalokot.
Previous posts on the recent events in Ukraine at The Monkey Cage:
How might sanctions affect Russia?
How Russian nationalism explains—and does not explain— the Crimean crisis
Crimean autonomy: A viable alternative to war?
Ukrainians are not that divided in their views of democracy
A graph that shows how the Ukraine got stuck between the West and Russia
How Putin’s worldview may be shaping his response in Crimea
International law and institutions look pretty weak now, but they will matter a lot down the road
The ‘Russia reset’ was already dead; now it’s time for isolation
Obama is using the OSCE to give Russia an exit strategy … if it wants one
Who are the Crimean Tatars, and why are they important?
5 reasons I am surprised the crisis in Crimea is escalating so quickly
How to prevent the crisis in Ukraine from escalating
What does Ukraine’s #Euromaidan teach us about protest?
Why Ukraine’s Yanukovych fell but so many analysts (including me) predicted he would survive
What you need to know about Ukraine
How social media spreads protest tactics from Ukraine to Egypt
Who are the protesters in Ukraine?
The (Ukrainian) negotiations will be tweeted!
Social networks and social media in Ukrainian “Euromaidan” protests
What you need to know about the causes of the Ukrainian protests
Why are people protesting in Ukraine? Providing historical context
How Ukrainian protestors are using Twitter and Facebook
As police raid protests in Ukraine, protesters turn to Twitter and Facebook
Six reasons to be cautious about likelihood of opposition success in Ukraine
Three reasons why protests in Ukraine could end up helping Yanukovych
Additional commentary from the NYU Social Media and Political Participation(SMaPP) lab not at The Monkey Cage: Tweeting the Revolution: Social Media Use and the #Euromaidan Protests