Putin Denies Provoking Ukraine by Offering Rebels Passports: 'I Don't See What's That Unusual, Other Countries Do It'

Russia Ukraine Putin passports separatists rebels
Armed men in military fatigues block access to government buildings in eastern Ukraine’s rebel-held Luhansk region, on November 23, 2017. Russian President Vladimir Putin is making Russian passports more easily available to Ukrainians living in the self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. ALEKSEY FILIPPOV/AFP/Getty Images

Russian President Vladimir Putin has dismissed allegations he is provoking the Ukrainian government by making Russian passports more easily available to Ukrainians living in the self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, where pro-Kremlin separatists have been battling Kiev forces since 2014.

Speaking after a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on an island off the Pacific port city of Vladivostok, Putin claimed the measure was purely humanitarian and no different from moves employed by other European nations.

According to Reuters, Putin told reporters: "We are far from trying to provoke anyone." He added it was "strange" that Kiev had reacted so angrily to the proposal. "I don't see what's that unusual, other countries do it," he said, noting that Poland, Romania and Hungary offer citizenship to ethnic kin living abroad. "How are Russians in Ukraine worse than Romanians, Poles or Hungarians?" Putin asked.

"The passports-related issue is purely humanitarian," Putin claimed, according to state news agency Tass. Residents of Donetsk and Luhansk will be allowed to apply for Russian passports and have their applications processed within three months, Reuters explained.

Kiev and Washington have already voiced anger over the proposed passport policy. It is the first major test of Ukraine's President-Elect Volodymyr Zelensky, a comedian who entered politics just over a year ago and was elected to the office in a landslide victory last weekend.

On Wednesday, Zelensky's team released a statement on Telegram that called Putin's passport proposition "another evident confirmation for the world community of Russia's true role as an aggressor state, which is waging a war against Ukraine," CNBC reported.

Outgoing President Petro Poroshenko urged "international partners to prevent the worst scenario, to harshly condemn destructive and criminal actions of the Russian authorities and also to strengthen international sanctions."

The U.S. State Department was quick to back Kiev, branding the policy a "highly provocative action" and accusing Moscow of "intensifying its assault on Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity."

Before his election victory, Zelensky had suggested he was willing to reopen dialogue with the Kremlin, arguing, "We must win peace for Ukraine." He did, however, stress that he would work with international allies to achieve the return of "temporarily occupied territories" and secure compensation for damages caused by the conflict there.

Putin has said he is open to normalizing the situation in eastern Ukraine if Kiev is willing to implement the 2015 ceasefire, signed as part of the Minsk Agreements. Both sides accuse the other of constantly violating the terms of the deal, and exchanges of small arms and artillery fire occur daily along the front lines.