On Saturday, February 18, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed an executive order temporarily recognizing passports and other documents held by residents of the self-proclaimed people’s republics of Donetsk and Luhansk in Ukraine.
The regions, also known as Donbas, are heavily militarized and have been under the control of Russian-backed separatists since 2014. In May 2014, the governments of Donetsk and Lugansk unsuccessfully sought to join Russia through popular referendums, similar to the one held in Crimea in March 2014 that resulted in the peninsula’s annexation.
According to the text of the decree, which was published on the Kremlin’s website, residents of Donetsk and Lugansk regions can now enter and leave Russia without obtaining a visa, as long as they have an ID issued by local authorities. Documents such as birth, marriage, and death certificates, vehicle registration plates, and school transcripts will also now be recognized by the Russian government.
According to Russian authorities, the “temporary” measure was “guided by universally recognized principles and standards of the international humanitarian law and in order to protect the rights and freedoms of individuals,” and is intended to make it easier for the residents of these self-proclaimed republics to access Russian social services and education.
As a number of Russian political commentators have observed, the decree may test the limits of Donald Trump’s support for Russia. At the time of this writing, Trump has not issued any official response to the decree. Since taking office, the American president has largely refrained from personally commenting about the situation in Ukraine, leaving it to members of his administration to condemn Russian action in the territory.
In her first address to the Security Council, newly-appointed U.S. ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, called Crimea a part of Ukraine, saying sanctions against Russia will remain in place until the Kremlin returns the peninsula. Haley also criticized Russian aggression in Eastern Ukraine.
The same day the Kremlin issue its decree, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence met with Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko at a conference in Munich and assured him of continuing U.S. support. According to the AP, Pence “‘underscored U.S. support’ for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and underlined that the U.S. does not recognize ‘Russia’s occupation and attempted annexation’ of Crimea.”
As the U.S. administration reassures Ukraine of its support in the face of Russian aggression, Russia’s most recent provocation places Trump in an awkward position. Can he continue to maintain his support for Putin while his advisers condemn and criticize the Russian president’s actions in Eastern Ukraine?