The Kremlin has dismissed reports from the European Union about its intentions to integrate the self-proclaimed separatist regions of Ukraine — the so-called Donetsk and Lugansk People's Republics — with Russia.
"Russia does not plan to absorb anyone. It has never done that," RBC quoted President Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov as saying on Thursday, denying allegations made by the EU.
On Wednesday, Bloomberg revealed the details of an unpublished European Union paper that accuses Russia of trying to "de-facto integrate" parts of Donbas, the separatist region in eastern Ukraine, which has been outside of governmental control since the conflict erupted in 2014. In the paper sent this week to member states, the EU warned that the Kremlin is taking a number of steps, including issuing Russian passports to local Ukrainian citizens and holding elections.
Under the decree issued by Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2019, residents of certain areas of Donetsk and Lugansk regions, which are collectively known as Donbas, and Ukrainian citizens, who lived in Crimea in March 2014, can voluntarily apply for expedited Russian citizenship via a simplified procedure. As of May 12, nearly 600,000 Ukrainian citizens were issued Russian passports in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, Ukrainian Parliament Commissioner for Human Rights Liudmyla Denisova reportedly wrote in her Telegram channel.
While the conflict in Ukraine’s war-torn Donbas region has not been a main focus in the media, renewed shelling and skirmishes between the Ukrainian army and pro-Russian armed separatists have pushed the region into the spotlight once again. Since the beginning of the year, at least 30 Ukrainian soldiers have been reportedly killed, with at least 20 fatalities seen on the other side.
More than seven years have passed since the signing of the Minsk agreements, which supposed to reintegrate the self-proclaimed separatist regions into Ukraine. However, this never happened and Donbas, a once-developed industrial region, has been impoverished by the war and is still divided by the front line.
The self-proclaimed separatist regions, the so-called DNR and LNR, unilaterally declared independence from Kyiv in 2014. These two separatist regions are unrecognized by both Kyiv and Moscow. However, since the start of the war, the Kremlin has been accused of having control over both regions, with some suggesting Moscow eventually wants to make the region Russian territory. Moscow has denied these accusations.
The Russian troops' buildup on the Ukrainian border last month have put under pressure what has been already strained relations between Russia and Ukraine. Moscow has reiterated more than once that the issue of taking over Donbas was not on the Kremlin's agenda. However, the Kremlin officials have voiced Moscow’s readiness to defend the interests of the Russian-speaking population in the territory.
Ukraine and Russia have been at odds since the 2014 crisis in Ukraine’s southern and eastern regions. Ukraine accuses Russia of annexing the Crimean Peninsula – a territory about the size of Maryland that extends into the Black Sea – and backing anti-government separatist riots in the country’s eastern regions of Donetsk and Lugansk. The crisis eventually destabilized the Donbas region of Ukraine.