While NATO expansion has been a central issue in the Russian decision to go to war with Ukraine, this is certainly not the only issue. Moscow has repeatedly maintained that a central factor in its decision to go to war with Ukraine was to protect ethnic Russian minorities in eastern Ukraine from human rights abuses committed by the Ukrainian state.
This justification for military intervention has used more than once in recent decades. We saw similar tactics used in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, both in Georgia. The Russian annexation of the Crimea in 2014 used similar rhetoric. Moreover, the Russian state has justified military interventions on grounds that it was protecting local political independence and autonomy of these minority groups from their respective states’ central governments.
Notably, the Russian regime extended citizenship to the populations of the separatist regions in question either before or after the military intervention in each case. This was done by granting passports en masse to the residents of each region, in a process called passportization.
Most recently, this has also been done in eastern Ukraine where passportization—as in Georgia— helped set the stage for military intervention.
This use of citizenship and naturalization as a tool of foreign policy helps to illustrate some of the geopolitical implications of the existence of unassimilated ethnic or linguistic minorities within a state’s borders. These realities also call into question what are often overconfident assumptions that ethnic minorities will “assimilate” and abandon political allegiances with foreign states. In fact, as the Russian efforts in these areas suggests, the process of assimilation can actually be thrown into reverse, with disastrous results from those who are on the losing end of these changes.
A Brief History of Passportization
The Russian passportization effort stems from an apparent shift in the Russian regime toward incorporating Russian ethnics and other sympathetic groups—and the territories they inhabit—into a de facto or de jure union with the Russian state. Some have attributed this strategy specifically to Vladimir Putin to whom has been attributed the so-called “Putin Doctrine” of “once Russian, always Russian.”
This doctrine, to the extent that it actually exists, is nonetheless heavily constrained by political realities. Even if Moscow has big plans for reclaiming numerous parts of the old Soviet Union, the fact is Moscow does not possess the military capability to do. The fact Moscow’s occupation efforts in Ukraine are limited to the south and southeast is only the latest evidence of this. Rather, efforts in bringing new territories under Moscow’s sway have only worked in areas where the Russian state has first turned a sizable portion of the local population into Russian citizens via the passportization strategy.
The Russians did not invent the idea of basing citizenship on ethnicity or cultural bonds. Broadly speaking, the idea that a regime has duties toward its subjects living outside the regime’s own geographic jurisdiction is an ancient one. Citizenship and state control have not always been tied to physical location as they are in the modern system of territorial states.
Nonetheless, the Russian state has apparently adapted to notion for modern use. The current passportization tactic began approzimately twenty yrears ago. As explained by the Verfassungsblog:
Since 2002 Russia started its passportization policy and intensified it in the contested regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia after the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia. Both regions fought wars of secession from Georgia during the early 1990s with Russian covert support, and in both regions, peacekeeping operations including Russian troops were deployed. By 2006 already 90% of the population of Abkhazia and South Ossetia held Russian passports. The Georgian refusal to allow the Abkhazian population to use a neutral UN laissez-passer contributed to the demand for Russian passports. Moreover, both Abkhazia (since 2005) and South Ossetia (since 2006) allow for dual citizenship only with Russia.
(Passportization has also been a significant development in Transnistria, a separatist region of Moldova that lies on the southwestern Ukrainian border.)
Similar tactics were then used in the Donbas region of Ukraine after 2019:
Five years after the self-proclamation of the separatist “People’s Republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk in spring 2014, Russia decided in April 2019 to allow residents of the separatist-controlled, Russian-backed parts of these two Ukrainian regions to become Russian citizens via a simplified procedure with Presidential Decrees 183 and 187. In July 2019, the fast-track procedure was extended to residents of the Donbas territories controlled by the Ukrainian government. By mid-August 2021, the approximate number of newly passportized Donbas residents appeared to be about 530,000—around 250,000 in the LPR and 280,000 in the DPR. Internationally, these passports are not recognized as valid travel documents.
In each case—Georgia in 2009 and Ukraine in 2022—this reverse assimilation was followed by military action to secure the territories newly populated by Russian citizens.
Encouraging Immigration into Crimea
The order of events was slightly different in the Crimea when Moscow annexed the peninsula in 2014. In the case of Crimea, annexations preceded widespread passportization, but Moscow benefited from the fact the Crimean population was already overwhelmingly ethnic Russian and sympathetic toward Russia. Crimean residents that did not have Russian passports received them soon after the annexation was executed. Moreover, to ensure the annexation had “staying power” the Russian regime encouraged immigration and resettlement of ethnic Russians into the Crimea. Some sources estimate more than 100,000 Russian migrants have settled on the peninsula in the wake of the annexation while a similar number of anti-Russian residents have left.
Demographics and Legal Citizenship Matter
It is important to note that in these cases, the extension of Russian citizenship was not simply a formality. Russian citizenship has come with access to social benefits through the Russian state, such as pensions, and recipients of the new passports have in many cases also been able to vote in Russian elections. Moreover, Russian citizenship brings with it a right to emigrate to Russia, which is a step up for many residents of the territories targeted for passportization. Russia’s GDP per capita, after all, is nearly twice that of Ukraine. Many residents of eastern Ukraine have elected to emigrate to Russia following passportization. This has helped to buttress Russias population in a time of demographic decline.
For the most part, passportization has serviced an important geopolitical purpose for Moscow: it has fundamentally changed the demographics of each targeted region, increasing the proportion of residents that are closely tied to the Russian state, and fostering a larger role for Moscow in areas that were formerly controlled by another state.
In each case, Moscow was only able to carry out these efforts because the pro-Russian minority groups were never “assimilated” or integrated into the linguistic and ethnic majorities. This created cleavages in the Ukrainian and Georgian populations that Moscow was able to exploit.
The Limits of Western Ideas about Minority Populations
In the West, where institutions (i.e., governments, markets, schools) are richer, stronger, and consequently better able to integrate minority groups, this phenomenon of reverse assimilation is not nearly as plausible. In much of the world, however, weak states bordered by larger and richer states are quite susceptible to efforts by foreign states to entice residents with offers of citizenship and access to foreign labor markets and foreign social benefits. Georgia and Ukraine—relatively poor and isolated states—are prime examples of where this strategy can work.
These developments also illustrate the limits of many pro-immigration bromides about immigration. Residents of the wealthy West tend to have great confidence that ethnic minority groups are all on a clear path to integration and that ethnic groups within a state will all enthusiastically work together to peacefully unify. It is also assumed that ethnic minorities within states are extremely unlikely to destabilize local regimes or pose any sort of real geopolitical threat. This is very often—if not usually—not the case outside the wealthy West.