Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on Thursday that Russia’s issuance of its passports to residents of eastern Ukraine was the first step towards annexation of the region.
“This is certainly the first step, because the same thing happened once in Crimea, the inhabitants of Crimea received Russian passports. It’s a big deal, ”Zelenskiy said at a press conference.
Russian news agency TASS cited official sources that more than 527,000 Russian passports have been surrendered in Donbass since April 2019.
Ukrainian authorities have said that at least 400,000 Russian passports have been distributed to residents of eastern Ukraine and that the need to protect these people can be used as an excuse or pretext for a possible open aggression against Ukraine .
Relations between Moscow and Kiev collapsed after Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region in 2014 and Russian-backed separatists took control of part of eastern Ukraine that same year.
Tensions have erupted again in recent months after the two countries exchanged blame for renewed fighting in eastern Ukraine, and Russia, in what it called a defensive exercise, massed troops on its western border with Ukraine and Crimea.
Russia has assembled more than 100,000 military personnel near the Ukrainian border and continues to maintain them despite the promise to withdraw its troops, Zelenskiy said, adding that the border tension could continue.
“They (the Russian forces) are moving away very, very slowly. (This is) a serious situation and I think that such tension can last until the end of the military exercises, at least until September, ”he said.
Zelenskiy said that Ukraine’s Western partners have been instrumental in easing tensions in Kiev-Moscow relations, but recently their pressure on the Kremlin has eased.
“I feel their support, but I think they should support us more,” Zelenskiy said.
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