MOSCOW • Russian President Vladimir Putin said he may extend an offer of citizenship to cover all Ukrainians, after he sparked controversy by ordering that 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 last Saturday, where he attended China's second Belt and Road Initiative summit.
"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 Zelenskiy, a comic and political novice, won a landslide election victory to become Ukraine's new president.
EASING THE WAY
We are generally thinking to provide a simplified citizenship procedure to Ukrainian citizens.
RUSSIAN PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN
(Russian citizenship offers) the right to be arrested for peaceful protest. It's the right not to have free and competitive elections.
UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKIY
Mr Zelenskiy 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 Zelenskiy 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."
Mr Putin said he also wanted to know Mr Zelenskiy's position on the conflict in eastern Ukraine, saying he had the impression that Mr Zelenskiy would not implement the terms of a peace deal sealed in Minsk in 2015 despite Ukrainians being tired of the war.
Mr Zelenskiy said that he was ready for talks, but warned Russia against trying to speak to Ukraine and Ukrainians "in the language of threats, military and economic pressure".
"This is not the best path to ceasefire and unblocking the Minsk process," he said. "From our side, we are ready to discuss new conditions for the coexistence of Ukraine and Russia. With the understanding that true normalisation will occur only after complete de-occupation."
Russia will start issuing passports on Friday, the head of the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic, Mr Denis Pushilin, said in a phone interview. Passports will go to separatist officials and military forces first, before being offered to the general population, he 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 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.