Passports as Pretext: How Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine Could Start
Russia has distributed hundreds of thousands of passports in Ukraine’s Donbass region. In recent months, Russian officials have increasingly warned that these new Russian citizens are facing “genocide.” The result is an all-too-convenient pretext if President Vladimir Putin decides to invade Ukraine.
On Feb. 15, 2022, the State Duma — the lower chamber of Russia’s parliament — adopted a petition asking Russian president Vladimir Putin to immediately initiate formal recognition of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic in eastern Ukraine. The petition was first introduced by the Communist Party on Jan. 19. On Feb. 14, the pro-Kremlin United Russia party introduced its own petition before subsequently throwing its support behind the Communist Party’s existing proposal.
This back-and-forth suggests that there is considerable infighting in Russia for the attention of Putin on how to proceed with Ukraine. And while the Duma vote on Feb. 15 appeared to indicate that formal recognition was imminent, Putin declared later the same day at his press conference with German chancellor Olaf Scholz that the “Donbass issue” will be solved by means of the “implementation of the Minsk Agreements.” In other words: no formal recognition yet.
The Duma’s petition on formal recognition of the self-declared republics and Putin’s insistence on solving the “Donbass issue” by implementing the Minsk Agreements on Russian terms showcase Russia’s two main approaches to Ukraine. But there is one significant overlap between the Duma and Putin: the emphasis on an alleged “genocide” in the Donbass and the obligation to protect Russian citizens there by force if necessary.
In its petition, the Duma accuses Ukraine’s government of committing a “genocide against its own people.” Speaker Viacheslav Volodin, from United Russia, is in agreement with the Communists that “a solution needs to be found to guarantee the security of our citizens and compatriots in the [Donetsk People’s Republic] and [Luhansk People’s Republic].” Putin, for his part, announced during the press conference with Scholz that current events in the Donbass amount to “genocide.”
This discourse on the necessity to protect Russian citizens from a purported genocide should be taken very seriously. In recent years, Putin has invoked the term in his rhetoric with greater frequency. Moreover, Russia’s behavior is consistently legalistic — it has historically sought a justification based on domestic and international law to send its troops abroad. In the view of the Russian leadership, the protection of Russian citizens beyond the Russian state borders provides such a legalistic foundation for military intervention.
Structural conditions are also increasingly conducive to the use of Russian citizens as a pretext for invasion. With passportization — a securitized, fast-track extraterritorial naturalization of Donbass residents en masse — Russia has effectively created hundreds of thousands of citizens since 2019 whom it can now claim to protect. This amounts to an abuse of rights in international law and a violation of the Minsk Agreement. What’s more, there is no evidence that the administration of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky is poised to retake the Russian-controlled region by force. Yet neither of these facts would necessarily stop Putin if he decides to use a false-flag operation against these passportized Russian citizens — including those serving in the armed forces of the “People’s Republics” — as a pretext to invade Ukraine.
Article 61(2) of the Russian constitution guarantees citizens “protection and patronage” even “beyond the borders” of Russian territory. As “guarantor of the Russian constitution,” former president Dmitry Medvedev invoked this clause during an emergency meeting of Russia’s Security Council on Aug. 8, 2008, to justify Russia’s military intervention in South Ossetia, Georgia. On the verge of the invasion, he declared: “According to the Constitution and federal legislation, as president of the Russian Federation, I am obliged to protect the life and dignity of Russian citizens, wherever they might be.”
The 2008 Russian-Georgian war subsequently led to the expansion of the president’s war powers. On Nov. 9, 2009, amendment law N 252-FZ expanded federal law N 61-FZ to include four grounds on which the president could order the “operative deployment” of Russian troops abroad. One was the “protection of citizens of the Russian Federation” from an “armed attack.” In the Ukrainian context, this refers specifically to Russian citizens, not to the broader category of compatriots or Russian speakers whose plight is often featured in Russian rhetoric. It is this legal framework that makes passportization in the Donbass so dangerous for Ukraine.
On Dec. 16, 2009, Russia’s Federation Council — the upper chamber of parliament — passed resolution N 456-SF. This granted the president the prerogative to send Russian troops abroad for an “operative deployment” without asking the Federation Council for approval. Even in an authoritarian system with a docile parliament, this makes a difference. First, circumventing parliament saves time, certainly hours if not days. And second, it requires fewer people to be consulted in advance, meaning a deployment could be ordered in greater secrecy.
While Foreign Minister Lavrov has repeatedly declared that Russia does not want war and has no intentions whatsoever to attack Ukraine, these statements need context: In spring 2014 — shortly before Russian troops participated in several major battles in Ukraine — Lavrov also denied Russia had intentions to send troops there. He did say, however, that Russia would take military action if Russian citizens were under attack: “An aggression against Russian citizens is equal to an aggression against Russia itself.”
Russia would almost certainly frame any further military action in Ukraine as defensive. The goal of Russia’s legalistic discourse would be what Oxford’s Roy Allison called deniable intervention: the creation of narratives “to blur the legal and illegal, to create justificatory smokescreens, in part by exploiting some areas of uncertainty in international law, while making unfounded assertions of ‘facts’.”
Since 2019, the Russian discourse on Russian citizens in the Donbass has steadily escalated. Genocide is no longer discussed as a threat but rather as if it was a matter of existing fact.
Shortly after Putin and Zelensky personally met at a Normandy summit in Dec. 2019, Putin stated that “Srebrenica would start” if Ukraine took control over the border between Russia and separatist-held Ukrainian territories. In other words, Putin implied that if the Minsk Protocol was implemented according to Ukraine’s reading, this would lead to a genocidal massacre of residents of the self-proclaimed republics.
During the first major Russian troop buildup at the Ukrainian border in spring 2021, Russia’s point man for the Donbass, Dmitry Kozak, declared that Russia would be forced to get involved and protect its citizens if Ukraine started military actions against the Donbass “republics” and created another “Srebrenica.” For good measure, he added that this would inevitably entail the “beginning of the end of Ukraine.” Tellingly, he made no attempt to connect this supposed threat to the sequencing of the Minsk Agreements.
This rhetoric culminated in Dec. 2021 when Putin stated that “what is currently going on in the Donbass […] resembles genocide.” What was previously framed as a contingency turned into a factual description of the situation.
Statements from other key elite actors in Putin’s inner circle suggest that Russia’s messaging is coordinated. In early Dec. 2021, the deputy chairman of the Federation Council, Konstantin Kosachev, declared that Russia “without any doubt had the right to protect its citizens” from a “military aggression.” In late December, he added that “Russia never attacked first” while “Ukraine pushes hard in order to decide the problems of the southeast [of Ukraine] with military means.” The same month, Russia’s minister of defense, Sergei Shoigu, claimed that “an unidentified chemical component” was delivered to Avdiivka and Krasnyi Lyman (both located in the part of the Donbass controlled by the Ukrainian government), implying that Ukraine would stage a chemical attack on the separatist territories with guidance from the United States.
In late December, Foreign Minister Lavrov doubled down on this rhetoric, repeating that Russia would “undertake all necessary steps for the protection” of its citizens in the Donbass. Any “military provocation” by Kyiv, he said, would be met with an “adequate response.” In mid-January, Lavrov (wrongly) stated that President Zelensky had threatened Russians to get lost and “leave Ukraine.” What if, Lavrov said, Ukraine’s leadership had made up its mind to realize “Plan B” (as an alternative to the Minsk Agreements) and would retake the Donbass by force? Lavrov stated that Ukraine’s foreign minister had even sought advice from Croatia on its experience with “Operation Storm” in 1995. Following Putin’s “Srebrenica” reference, this was the second high-profile invocation of mass atrocities during the Yugoslav wars. Similarly, the director of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, Sergei Naryshkin, declared on Feb. 10 that the goal of the Ukrainian administration was to “destroy the people’s republics” and to “get Russia involved in an inner-Ukrainian conflict.” Kyiv, in Naryshkin’s view, not only aims to “capture the territories of the people’s republics,” but to conduct a “’cleansing’ according to the Croatian version.”
Russia’s Passportized Citizens
The structural conditions are now increasingly conducive for Russia to exploit its extraterritorial citizens: According to figures provided by the separatist governments of Donetsk and Luhansk, 635,000 residents received Russian passports by the end of January 2022, amounting to as much as 35 percent of the local population. If Russia recognized the “Donetsk People’s Republic” and “Luhansk People’s Republic” as independent states, their leaders could then formally ask Russia for help, which, according to Russia’s “Law on Defense” could legitimize the deployment of troops. Judging by their public rhetoric, this might actually be the preferred outcome of local leaders, whose ultimate aim is to join Russia.
Of course, this doesn’t mean ordinary residents of the Donetsk and Luhansk “republics” lack agency or necessarily want to be protected. Polls and voting behavior demonstrate that the social fabric in these territories cannot be summarized as simply “pro-Russian.” Independent surveys show that up until 2019, that is before passportization started, 55 percent of residents preferred a future within Ukraine. By 2021, another survey showed that already more than half of respondents would prefer a future status within the Russian Federation. According to a recent paper from the Temerty Contemporary Ukraine Program at Harvard University’s Ukrainian Research Institute, only between 8 and 14 percent of the adult population of the “people’s republics” took part in the last Russian parliamentary elections in 2021. But those who actually cast their ballot were considerably more supportive of United Russia than long-time Russian citizens in the neighboring Rostov region.
For Putin, though, the preferences of these citizens do not appear to be the primary concern. If Russia eventually chose to use them as a pretext for another military invasion, it would lack international credibility, just as it did in 2008 and 2014. But Russian actions and rhetoric nonetheless raise the very real possibility that Putin could try this approach if negotiations to implement the Minsk Agreements on Russian terms ultimately fail.
Fabian Burkhardt is a research associate at the Leibniz Institute for East and Southeast European Studies, Germany. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Bremen. He serves as the editor of Russland-Analysen, and is an editorial board member of Riddle Russia. You can follow him @fa_burkhardt.
Image: Russian State Duma