A major component of Russia’s hybrid warfare strategy is ‘passportization.’ Passportization is Russia’s policy of offering passports (and citizenship) to residents of occupied territories. In conjunction with the Kremlin’s tactics of sustained disinformation campaigns and cyber-attacks, passportization allows Moscow to wage war without risking its own soldiers.
This policy, in combination with Russian disinformation and cyber-attacks fits within an old Soviet strategy of ‘reflexive control.’ Reflexive control is a method in which a (typically weaker) party can influence a partner or opponent into unwittingly choosing bad options by influencing perceptions. From the beginning of the conflict in Ukraine, the Kremlin has hidden its true goals from the public; this follows a strategy of reflexive control as Moscow can portray the attainment of actual goals as victory, deny failures, and above all prevent a coherent response from its adversaries.
Thus, in the first year of the conflict, President Putin began speaking of ‘Novorossiya,’ a Russian imperial inventioncomprising the southern third of Ukraine’s territory which holds 45 percent of its population. At the time, the Kremlin likely desired to use the illegitimate Donetsk and Luhansk Republics in the Donbas as a launching pad to create a puppet Russian state across the widely Russian-speaking ‘Novorossiya’ which would link Russian-occupied Transnistria and Crimea with Russia proper. This plan failed when Ukraine secured the port city of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov from Russian-backed separatist forces in mid-2014. Following this defeat, the Kremlin quietly dropped the notion of ‘Novorossiya’ and it was as if the plan never existed.
As President Putin’s dreams of Novorossiya vanished, the Kremlin quietly transformed the crisis into another frozen conflict. Russia’s overall objective, like its policies elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, is to prevent these countries from pursuing integrative policies with the West, or at least separation from Russia. Passportization allows Russia to effectively disrupt integration under the guise of humanitarian assistance. It also provides Russia an opportunity to address its demographic woes as well as provide means of influence in target countries.
In 2019, Russian deaths exceeded births by 316,000. According to some estimates by the United Nations, the Russian population may well contract from a 2020 population of 146.7 million to between 135.8 and 124.6 million by 2050. For Moscow, Ukrainians provide a fellow Slavic population with close historic, linguistic, and religious links that can easily integrate into Russian society and revitalize Russia’s declining population. In part, passportization helps ameliorate Russia’s ongoing demographic crisis by siphoning off other countries’ citizenry.
This passportization policy also enables the Kremlin to meddle with the internal affairs of a country. The most obvious form this takes is by providing the Kremlin a casus belli. Prior to the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, Russia had flooded Abkhazia and South Ossetia with Russian passports. When Georgian Prime Minister Mikheil Saakashvili moved to reassert government control over the renegade South Ossetia, Russia responded with invasion, claiming it was defending Russian citizens.
Moscow has, supposedly for humanitarian reasons, provided over 441,000 Russian passports in the occupied Donbas territories, and facilitated the issuance of over 1.2 million Luhansk and Donetsk passports. And in 2019, President Putin fast-tracked naturalization for any Ukrainian who lived or lives in Ukraine’s east, who works in Russia, and any Ukrainian who was born in Crimea but left prior to the annexation, as well as their families. In the spring of 2020, Russia passed an amendment nullifying restrictions on dual citizenship for Moldovan, Ukrainian, Georgian, and Kazakhstani citizens applying for a Russian passport.
Russia’s passportization of the Donbas allows it to prepare for two contingencies. The first is to engage openly in war on behalf of its newly minted citizens should Ukraine launch a fresh, Western-backed offensive. The second is to give up the provinces back to Kyiv as poison pills. While Russia’s campaign has bolstered anti-Russian sentiment in Ukraine, Moscow’s information campaign in the Donbas has painted Ukraine as a gang of fascists. A reincorporated Donbas will thus function as a Ukrainian pressure point for Russia.
By inserting a pro-Russian population into Ukraine, Russia can create a time bomb that could provide Russia a dishonest justification to seize ‘Novorossiya,’ or at least keep Ukraine within Moscow’s orbit. One way that Kyiv can nullify this issue is by providing comprehensive services and assistance to the people in the occupied territories if and when they are recovered. Such assistance would combat Russia’s plans in two ways – it would diminish incentives for Ukrainians to work in Russia as well as show them that Kyiv is not the fascist junta portrayed by the Kremlin. However, for this to work, the West must provide both political and economic support to Kyiv, even after territorial reunification.