MOSCOW (BLOOMBERG) - Russian President Vladimir Putin said he may extend an offer of citizenship to cover all Ukrainians after he sparked controversy by ordering passports be made available to people in areas of the country controlled by pro-Moscow separatists.
Russia's offer of citizenship is "not only to the people who live" in the rebel-held areas of Ukraine's eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions, Mr Putin told reporters in Beijing on Saturday (April 27).
"We are generally thinking to provide a simplified citizenship procedure to Ukrainian citizens."
It is unclear how many Ukrainians would take up Mr Putin's offer amid deepening divisions between the two neighbours. Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and backed separatists in Ukraine's east in a war that has killed 13,000 people in the past five years.
Ukraine called for "increasing diplomatic and sanctions pressure" by the international community after Mr Putin issued his decree last Wednesday, ordering the creation of a fast-track procedure for residents in separatist areas to claim passports.
He acted just three days after Mr Volodymyr Zelensky, a comic and political novice, won a landslide election victory to become Ukraine's new president.
Mr Zelensky hit back at Mr Putin's latest comments with a lengthy Facebook post that urged officials in Moscow "not to waste their time trying to lure Ukrainian citizens with Russian passports".
Russian citizenship offered "the right to be arrested for peaceful protest. It's the right not to have free and competitive elections", Mr Zelensky wrote.
"We will provide Ukrainian citizenship to representatives of all peoples who suffer from authoritarian and corrupt regimes. In the first place - to Russians, who today suffer perhaps more than anyone else," he added.
Russia will start issuing passports on May 3, the head of the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic, Mr Denis Pushilin, said in a phone interview. "That's a long awaited but a rather unexpected step," he said.
Passports will go to separatist officials and military forces first, then be offered to the general population, he said. People will be able to apply for them at a centre in the breakaway region but will have to collect the documents in Russia's Rostov, and local authorities are planning to organise shuttles to take them there, Mr Pushilin said.
Russia has made similar moves in other breakaway regions in the former Soviet Union and, in at least one case, used the presence of newly converted citizens as justification for military intervention.
The Kremlin order threatens to ratchet up confrontation between Russia and Ukraine, which has repeatedly accused Mr Putin of sending troops and weapons to aid the separatists. He denies Russian forces are involved.
The United States and the European Union have imposed sanctions on Russia.
The US State Department last week condemned Mr Putin's decree as "highly provocative" and accused Russia of "intensifying its assault on Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity".
The German and French foreign ministries said in a joint statement that the passport offer "contradicts the spirit and goals" of a stalled 2015 peace agreement intended to resolve the conflict.
Rebel officials say about 3.6 million people live in the areas under their control. About 360,000 people in separatist-held territory in Donetsk have already obtained Russian passports through ordinary procedures, Mr Pushilin said.