Russia recognizes passports from Ukrainian separatists, stoking annexation fears

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Russian president Vladimir Putin has signed an order recognizing passports issued by separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine, prompting alarm from the United States and Ukrainian officials amid fears it could represent a step by Moscow towards declaring the rebel regions independent states.

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The executive order recognizes passports and other documents issued by the self-declared People's Republics of Lugansk and Donetsk, the two rebel republics that have established themselves with Russian support in an ongoing war against Ukraine's government. The republics are currently unrecognized -- including by Russia -- but Moscow has secretly supplied them with arms and money, and has covertly deployed its own military to carve out their territory.

The order published by the Kremlin said residents of Lugansk and Donetsk would now be able to enter Russia "just upon presenting IDs issued by relevant bodies de facto operating in the given areas," referring to the separatist authorities. It also recognized birth and marriage certificates, drivers licenses and educational qualifications among other documents issued by the rebels.

The order shakes the stagnant conflict and in making it, the Kremlin appeared to be laying down another test of the Trump administration as it weighs its policy on Ukraine and Russia, with the order published even as Vice President Mike Pence appeared before European security leaders in Germany to reassure them the U.S. is committed to their defense before a newly aggressive Moscow.

The U.S. embassy in Kiev swiftly issued an expression of dismay over the Russian order. On Twitter the embassy wrote that the step "is alarming and contradicts the agreed-upon goals of the Minsk Agreement," referring to the two-year-old peace agreements meant to end the fighting and which calls for the rebel areas to be reintegrated into Ukraine.

Senior Ukrainian officials warned that Putin's order could be seen as ending that agreement. Oleksander Turchynov, secretary of Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council, said in a statement: "This step by Kremlin completely destroys the Minsk process and is equal to Russia's statement about an exit from that."

The Kremlin and other Russian officials downplayed the order, saying it was temporary and only removed a burdensome bureaucratic hurdle for residents in the rebel areas. Russia has denied supporting the rebels with money or militarily, despite evidence to the contrary.

The rebel regions in Ukraine's east have been in limbo as the conflict has settled into a poorly observed truce, with the front lines effectively fixed but fire still exchanged on a daily basis. Following Russia's invasion and swift incorporation of Crimea in 2014, the rebels in the east had hoped they would be next. But recently, they have complained of feeling increasingly forgotten by Moscow, which has shown little interest in formally absorbing them.

Now, though, analysts in Russia and in Western capitals said they believed Putin's order today could indicate Moscow was slowly moving towards recognition.

That is how the separatists publicly interpreted it. The leader of the Lugansk People's Republic, Igor Plotniskii, hailed it as "another step towards international recognition of our sovereignty," Russian news agencies reported.

The move recalls a playbook used by the Kremlin in other separatist conflicts within its neighbors' borders. In Russia, analysts quickly referred to Russian actions in its short war with the former Soviet republic of Georgia in 2008. In that conflict, Moscow backed two breakaway regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which have since become effectively incorporated into Russia.

Shortly after its troops bulldozed Georgian forces out of the regions, Russia recognized identity documents from their separatist governments, who at the time celebrated that as a sign Moscow would soon recognize them as independent states. Not long after that, Russia did, becoming one of only four countries (including the tiny island of Nauru) to do so.

Russian officials said today that was not the plan in Ukraine. Russian diplomatic sources, speaking anonymously to the business paper, RBK, said recognition was not on the cards.

But Putin's move on Sunday is the latest development in Ukraine’s conflict since Donald Trump became president, with some seeing it as an effort to probe the new administration's attitude. In early February, the worst fighting in two years broke out, leaving at least 30 dead. Last week, Putin accused Kiev of having decided on a military solution to the conflict.

Trump's policy on Ukraine has yet to take shape. Comments during his campaign had encouraged hopes among some Russian officials Trump might consider recognizing Russia’s annexation of Crimea and removing U.S. sanctions on Moscow.

Those hopes though have dimmed recently, as Trump's administration has appeared to fall back on previous U.S. policy towards Ukraine. The White House has said sanctions will not be lifted until Crimea is returned to Ukraine, and last week Trump suggested he would have stopped Moscow from taking the peninsula in the first place.

That has relieved some of America's European allies, but they remain deeply worried by Trump's regular praise of Putin and in particular his apparent disdain for the European Union. Pence over the weekend delivered an address at a security conference in Munich with what he said was a direct message from the president that the White House's commitment to defending Europe was total, including standing up to Moscow.

"Know this: The United States will continue to hold Russia accountable, even as we search for new common ground, which as you know President Trump believes can be found," Pence said.