Russian President Vladimir Putin says his administration is considering a plan to ease the process of granting Russian citizenship to all Ukrainians, not only those in war-torn parts of eastern Ukraine.
The remark, made by Putin on April 27 at a summit in Beijing, is likely to further inflame tensions with Kyiv, and with the incoming administration of President-elect Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
"In general, we are thinking of giving our citizenship, in a simplified manner, to the citizens of Ukraine," Putin said.
Zelenskiy won a landslide victory in the April 21 vote, defeating Petro Poroshenko, who has been president since just after Russia annexed the Crimea Peninsula and helped start a war in parts of Ukraine's eastern Donbas region in 2014.
Putin has not congratulated Zelenskiy on his victory. Instead, the Kremlin announced a plan to grant citizenship to residents of regions currently controlled by Russia-backed separatists-- a decision that was widely seen as highly provocative.
That drew a swift and angry response from Kyiv, the United States, Britain, and the European Union, as well as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe -- the international organization tasked with monitoring compliance with the 2015 Minsk peace agreements.
Poroshenko said Putin's decree "is actually about the Kremlin's preparations for the next step of aggression against our state -- the annexation of the Ukrainian Donbas or the creation of a Russian enclave in Ukraine."
In his news conference in Beijing, Putin also said he was open to meeting with Zelenskiy.
"If we meet someday, begin some talks -- and I'm not ruling this out -- then we must talk about how to end the conflict in southeastern Ukraine in the first place," he was quoted as saying.
Observers point to other frozen conflicts in former Soviet republics where Russia has granted citizenship to residents of separatist-held territory in order to choreograph demographic changes over time and justify future military operations.
In 2002, the Kremlin began granting Russian citizenship to residents of Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. That policy that helped raise the number of Russian passport holders there from about 20 percent to more than 85 percent of the population.
Then, when Russia went to war against Georgia in August 2008, the Kremlin justified its deployment of Russian military forces in Abkhazia and South Ossetia by saying those forces were needed to protect Russia citizens in the separatist regions.
Russian media reports say Russia also has issued its passports to nearly half of the residents of Moldova’s Moscow-backed breakaway region of Transdniester.