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With new amendments to Russia’s Law on Citizenship, the Kremlin is establishing a legal pretext to threaten or actually to use force based on a claim to protect Russian citizens resident in neighbouring states.
On 24 April, President Vladimir Putin signed a law to amend Russia’s citizenship law. The new provisions had been rushed through the Russian parliament, passing both houses in just two weeks. Under the terms of the amendments, described as ‘revolutionary’ for Russia’s approach to citizenship, key groups of foreigners, notably including ethnic Russians and Russian speakers resident in states neighbouring Russia, will qualify for a simplified procedure to obtain citizenship. Russia is reported to be aiming to add between five and ten million new citizens as a result of the provisions.
While the revision of the citizenship law is in part motivated by the need to address Russia’s demographic crisis, it also forms part of a shift by the Putin government to put Russian ethno-linguistic identity and nationalism at the core of its regional foreign policy. Since the annexation of Crimea and the onset of the war in Donbas in Ukraine in 2014, Russia has increasingly looked to use citizenship for geopolitical purposes in the former Soviet territories by ‘passporting’ the diaspora – the mass extension of Russian citizenship to persons outside the territory of Russia.
The policy is not, however, entirely new. Over the past three decades, Russia has used ‘passportisation’, together with various policies to promote links to compatriots, to increase its influence in strategic neighbouring regions.
In the cases of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, Transnistria in Moldova, and Crimea and Donbas in Ukraine, these policies have been at the core of Russia’s claims to have a unique responsibility that justifies its security engagement, and even military intervention. The recent amendments to Russia’s citizenship law, thus, raise the concern that Russia is seeking to build a legal justification to interfere in the internal affairs of its neighbours, supported by an implicit threat of military action, and even possible annexation.
Russia and the Russian Diaspora
With the demise of the Soviet Union in December 1991, up to 25 million ethnic Russians and tens of millions of Russian speakers (those who use Russia as their main language while not being ethnic Russians) found themselves living in newly independent states outside Russia. As conflicts developed along Russia’s periphery, and the Boris Yeltsin government came under domestic political attack for neglecting the Russian diaspora in the face of alleged discrimination (notably in Estonia and Latvia), Russian policy shifted to focus on its so-called near abroad.
A new doctrine of Russian foreign and security policy crystallised from 1996 under influential Foreign Minister and Prime Minister Evgenii Primakov. The doctrine was based on the assertion that Russia is a great power in large part because of its place and responsibilities at the heart of Eurasia. Within this doctrine, ethnic and linguistic communities with historic or cultural ties to Russia (compatriots) were presented as a key Russian interest and a cornerstone of Russia’s role in its ‘sphere of influence’.
While the Primakov doctrine largely defined Russia’s foreign and security policy from the mid-1990s, the country’s internal problems and lack of resources held Russia back from implementing these ideas. When Putin became president in 2000 and subsequently consolidated power in the Kremlin, the Primakov doctrine was steadily applied, initially in the post-Soviet territories. Diaspora policy emerged as an important tool of influence as Russia sought to build ties to compatriot communities and to exert pressure in protracted conflicts in Georgia and Moldova, as well as in Ukraine.
While Putin pursued a strong Russian national policy, he was not, however, an ethnic nationalist. Russian nationalist politicians were, indeed, kept at arm’s length from policymaking. Overall, Putin sought to strike a balance between Russian ethnicity (russkii) and a bigger idea of Russian civic statehood.
Thus, while Russia reached out to ethnic kin (russkii) and Russian speakers, it also sought to build links to various communities with historic ties to the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, irrespective of ethnicity, within the concept of Eurasianism. Simultaneously, Moscow pursued a policy of extending Russian citizenship abroad through the passportisation of strategic non-Russian groups.
In 2002, Moscow began granting Russian citizenship to residents of Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. That policy helped to increase the number of Russian passport holders there from about 20% of the population to more than 80%. An estimated, 250,000–500,000 residents of Moldova’s disputed Transnistria region are also believed to have acquired Russian citizenship.
In August 2008, when Russia and Georgia went to war, the Kremlin justified its deployment of Russian military forces in Abkhazia and South Ossetia by claiming they were needed to protect Russia citizens.
Putin Strengthens Ethnic Nationalism from 2014
As Russia’s relations deteriorated with Ukraine following the Orange Revolution of 2004, the country became a particular target of Russia’s efforts to strengthen relations with its compatriots. Moscow’s move in 2014 to annex Crimea and its involvement in the subsequent war in Donbas marked, however, a new stage in Russia’s relationship with the diaspora. For the first time, Moscow seized territory by military force on the basis of ethnic claims.
In March 2014, in a speech justifying the annexation of Crimea, Putin drew heavily on Russian ethnic nationalism as the motivation for his policies. In the speech, Putin used the word russkii more than 20 times, and he highlighted that the Russian ethnic community had been separated by borders as a result of the breakup of the Soviet Union. He also invoked the concept of the Russian world (Russkii Mir), which is informed by Russian Orthodox and Slavophile movements, and stressed an aspiration for unity.
Later in the year, Putin’s use of the term Novorossiya (a term denoting the Russian imperial territories north of the Black Sea, which are now predominately located in southern Ukraine) appeared to indicate that Russia was looking to regather historic territories based on ethnic and linguistic ties. While Putin subsequently pulled back from the Novorossiya agenda, Russia has strengthened the ethnic and linguistic component of its foreign and security policies toward Ukraine and sought to use citizenship for strategic purposes.
In April 2014, the Russian Law on Citizenship was amended to permit the fast track naturalisation of a new legal category of ‘Russian speakers’ to enable the population of newly annexed Crimea to gain Russian citizenship. In April 2019, Russia expanded the list of persons eligible for fast-tracked passports to include residents of the separatist-controlled territories of Luhansk and Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, and later to all residents of the regions, even in areas under Ukraine’s control. More than 200,000 Ukrainians are reported to have received Russian citizenship in 2019, more than double the figure for 2018. At the same time, 227,000 residents of the two contested eastern Ukraine regions were granted Russian passports.
Under the 2020 amendments to Russia’s citizenship law, Moscow’s passportisation policy is significantly expanded to encompass much of the former Soviet territories. In the revised law, Russia de facto permits dual citizenship by waiving the former requirement that those applying for Russian citizenship submit a confirmatory note that they applied to renounce their current citizenship in their home countries. At the same time, citizens of Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova and Kazakhstan are provided with a simplified application procedures for a fast-track Russian citizenship. Stateless persons in Estonia and Latvia are also granted a simplified procedure for Russian citizenship.
Passports and Geopolitical Nationalism
Since the annexation of Crimea, President Putin has increasingly stressed ethnic and linguistic elements within Russian regional foreign and security policy. As a part of this approach, Russia has sought to fashion a transnational citizenship focused on compatriot communities spread across the former Soviet Union.
The 2020 amendments to Russian’s citizenship law, thus, mark a significant step in a project of Russian nation-building beyond the borders of the Russian state. These measures appear designed to weaken further the legal significance of the state borders of Russia’s neighbours and to strengthen Russia’s claim to exercise a regional droit de regard, backed by the threat of use of force.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
Director, International Security Studies
International Security Studies