MOSCOW â€” The Kremlin on Monday defended its decision to recognize passports issued by separatist authorities in eastern Ukraine, saying it came as a response to Ukraine’s blockade of rebel regions.
President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, also shrugged off a peace plan that a Ukrainian lawmaker reportedly tried to peddle to U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration.
The statements came as demonstrators in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv marked the third anniversary of events that led to the ouster of the nation’s Russia-friendly president in 2014 with protests and wreath-laying.
The weekend move by Putin to recognize passports and other documents issued by rebel authorities has drawn sharp criticism from Ukraine, which called it a violation of a 2-year-old peace deal. Ukrainian forces have been fighting Russia-backed separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine since April 2014, a conflict that has killed more than 9,800 people.
Peskov said Putin’s decree was a humanitarian gesture to help struggling residents in the rebel regions who have faced a transportation blockade imposed by Ukrainian nationalists. The blockade made it impossible for residents of the rebellious east to travel to the Ukrainian government-held side to receive or extend their passports and other documents, he said.
“The Russian president has signed the decree exclusively on humanitarian grounds,” Peskov said in a conference call with reporters.
He rejected Ukraine’s claim that the move violated the 2015 peace deal, noting that Putin’s move does not officially recognize the rebel regions.
“These aren’t the documents of an officially recognized state. They are de facto issued on the territory of the region,” he said.
Steffen Seibert, a spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, called Russia’s recognition of the rebel documents “totally unacceptable.” German Foreign Ministry spokesman Martin Schaefer also described it as “a clear violation of the spirit and aims of the Minsk (peace) agreements.”
Schaefer said the move gives people from Ukraine’s rebellious regions privileges in Russia, even though under international law only states can issue passports
The U.S. Embassy in Kyiv also said it was disturbed by Russia’s decision, adding that it “contradicts the agreed-upon goals” of the Minsk peace agreement.
Germany and France helped broker the February 2015 peace deal for eastern Ukraine that was signed in the Belarusian capital of Minsk. The agreement has helped reduce the fighting, but clashes have continued and attempts at a political settlement have stalled.
The U.S. and the European Union have imposed sanctions on Russia over its 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and its support for insurgents in eastern Ukraine. They have made lifting those sanctions contingent on the progress of the Minsk deal.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko warned Friday against any “appeasement” of Russia and said the Trump administration has a “historic chance” to halt Moscow’s ambitions. The statement appeared to reflect Ukraine’s uneasiness about the intentions of Trump, who has praised Putin and vowed to improve relations with Russia.
Ukrainian lawmaker Andrii Artemenko has offered a rival peace plan envisioning a referendum on leasing Crimea to Russia for 50 or 100 years to precede the Russian troops’ withdrawal from the east. The New York Times reported that Artemenko’s proposal was given to Michael Flynn a week before he resigned as Trump’s national security adviser.
Peskov said the Kremlin knew nothing about Artemenko’s proposal, which he dismissed as “absurd,” adding that Russia isn’t going “to rent its own region.”
Peskov described the Minsk agreement as the only possible basis for settling the conflict.
Poroshenko, meanwhile, also faces challenges at home, where a worsening economy has fueled public discontent and nationalists have pushed for a tougher course against rebel regions.
On Sunday, nationalist protesters in Kyiv who support the blockade of eastern regions clashed with police outside the presidential administration building. The unrest began when demonstrators in camouflage and balaclavas tried to set up a tent camp outside Poroshenko’s headquarters.
The government has criticized the blockade as hurting ordinary Ukrainians in the rest of the country by cutting coal shipments from separatist regions, the main source of coal for the nation despite the fighting. That has resulted in power shortages in government-held parts of Ukraine.
Demonstrators on Monday also filled the streets of Kyiv to honour the victims of violence on Feb. 20, 2014, when snipers shot dozens of protesters pushing for the ouster of then-President Viktor Yanukovich. The Moscow-friendly ruler was chased from power the next day.
Frank Jordans and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed.
Vladimir Isachenkov, The Associated Press