MOSCOW'S decision to hand out passports to ethnic Russians in Ukraine is part of a plot to invade the country, it’s claimed.
Vladimir Putin signed an order last night which could pave the way for people living in an area occupied by pro-Russian rebels to become fully fledged Russian citizens.
Putin claims the move gives human rights to those living in the area.
He said: “To tolerate a situation in which people living in the territory of Donetsk and Luhansk republic are generally deprived of any civil rights, this is already crossing the line from the point of view of human rights.”
But the US and UK plus Russian experts believe something more sinister is at hand.
It is widely feared the real intention is part of a conspiracy to give Moscow legal cover for deploying troops to eastern Ukraine on the pretext of protecting “Russian citizens”.
Five years of war between Ukrainian troops and Russian-backed forces in the Donbass have killed 13,000 people despite a notional ceasefire signed in 2015.
The Ukrainian outgoing president, Petro Poroshenk, said: "It is actually about the Kremlin's preparations for the next step of aggression against our state — the annexation of the Ukrainian Donbass or the creation of a Russian enclave in Ukraine.”
It is actually about the Kremlin's preparations for the next step of aggression against our state — the annexation of the Ukrainian Donbass or the creation of a Russian enclave in Ukraine
Dr Andrew Foxall, director of the Henry Jackson Society’s Russia and Eurasia Studies Centre, told Sun Online: “Russia has done this before.
“In the mid-2000s, Russia began handing out its passports to individuals based in Georgia.
“In particular, to individuals based in two separatist regions – Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
“It was the same two regions that Russia went to war with Georgia over, in 2008, in the name – at least in part – of protecting its passport-holders.”
Dr Foxall said Russia also handed out its passports to individuals in Crimea well before its annexation in March 2014.
He said: “Again, one of the reasons the Kremlin gave for the annexation was protecting its passport-holders.”
This step is the latest in a pattern of Russian behaviour aimed at threatening Ukraine’s security and sovereignty, and undermining its territorial integrity
A US State Department statement said: "Russia, through this highly provocative action, is intensifying its assault on Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity."
This was echoed by the UK Foreign Office.
A spokesman said: “The UK condemns President Putin’s decision to sign a decree making it easier for Ukrainian citizens living in non-Government controlled areas of eastern Ukraine to receive Russian passports.
“This step is the latest in a pattern of Russian behaviour aimed at threatening Ukraine’s security and sovereignty, and undermining its territorial integrity.”
Earlier this month the leader of the Russian backed rebel held Donbass region, Denis Pushilin, said he backed breaking away from Ukraine and joining Russia.
The situation has its roots in a collapse in relations between Ukraine and Moscow after the Maidan street protests in Kiev in 2014.
This prompted a Kremlin-backed Ukrainian president to flee into exile and for a pro-West and Nato leader to come to power.
Infuriated the country was no longer within its sphere of influence, Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimea peninsula a month later in March 2014 and soon after began backing rebels in Donbass.
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