Just 72 hours after the election of former actor and comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy as Ukraine’s next president, Russian President Vladimir Putin has given him his first geopolitical challenge.
Putin signed a decree on Wednesday stating that those who live in the parts of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions that are currently controlled by Moscow-backed separatists will be issued Russian passports.
Ukraine’s newly elected president was quick to criticize Putin’s decree. He suggested that Ukraine should instead issue Ukrainian passports “to all people who suffer from authoritarian and corrupt regimes,” first and foremost “to the Russian people who suffer most of all.”
Putin’s recent action should come as no surprise. Moscow has been issuing Russian passports to citizens of other former Soviet countries for years.
This policy of “passportization” is completely in line with Putin’s foreign policy mentality. During his 2005 State of the Nation address to the Russian parliament, Putin infamously said, “We should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the major geopolitical disaster of the 20th century.”
In that same speech, he also said: “For the Russian nation, [the collapse of the USSR] became a genuine drama. Tens of millions of our co-citizens and compatriots found themselves outside Russian territory.”
Under Putin’s leadership, Russia has designated itself the protector of these ethnic Russians—no matter where in the world they may be.
Moscow has long embraced this “protector of ethnic Russians” status under Putin—formally known as the Compatriot Policy—and all levels of his government have followed suit.
Putin’s most recent passport decree is also nothing new.
In 2002, approximately 150,000 people living the Georgian region of Abkhazia were granted Russian citizenship. This foreshadowed Moscow’s actions in 2008, when Russia invaded Georgia. At this time, Russian passports were handed out in the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
After seeing this take place, Ukrainian officials were nervous that Russia might issue passports to its citizens in Crimea. That fear became a reality in 2014, when Russian forces invaded and annexed Crimea and granted Russian citizenship to everyone living there.
So, looking at Putin’s track record, his passport decree on Wednesday was a predictable next step.
In the middle of the 19th century, British Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston said of Russia:
The policy and practice of the Russian government has always been to push forward its encroachments as fast and as far as the apathy or want of firmness of other governments would allow it to go, but always to stop and retire when it met with decided resistance and then to wait for the next favorable opportunity.
Looking at recent actions in Ukraine, it seems that what was true of Imperial Russia is true of Putin’s Russia.
Russia has been able to exploit its neighbors’ vulnerability to its own benefit, calculating that the West won’t respond in any significant way.
As Lord Palmerston knew so well, Russia will do what it knows it can get away with. No more and no less.
Putin’s move to issue passports in eastern Ukraine is a clear affront to Ukraine’s sovereignty. It is also a test for the new Ukrainian president.
Most importantly, though, this cavalier decision by Moscow shows that those running the Kremlin do not want better relations with the West.
Western leaders should not believe otherwise.
This piece originally appeared in The Daily Signal