MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday signed an executive order recognizing passports and other documents issued by Russian-backed separatists in southeast Ukraine, a controversial step that brings Moscow closer to de facto recognition of the breakaway republics.
The move triggered protests from Kiev and will provide an early test of the Trump administration’s ability to manage the three-year-old conflict as it seeks to reassure allies that it will continue to counterbalance Russian influence in Eastern Europe.
The executive order, which was posted Saturday on the Kremlin’s website, said that those living in areas of southeast Ukraine outside of Kiev’s control “can enter and leave the Russian Federation without applying for visas upon showing identification documents (birth certificates for children under the age of 16), issued by the corresponding authorities which are valid in the said districts.”
Those authorities are the Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic, the heavily militarized separatist governments that appeared in 2014 after a revolution in Kiev and Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
The West has accused them of serving as Russian proxies and Moscow of supplying them with Russian soldiers and arms.
Like Crimea, they held controversial referendums and sought to join Russia formally, but Moscow demurred. Since then, they have been locked in a grinding conflict with Kiev that has killed more than 10,000, according to the United Nations. A peace process called the Minsk Agreement, agreed upon in 2015, provides steps out of the conflict, but it has largely gone unfulfilled.
“This step by Kremlin completely destroys the Minsk process and is equal to Russia’s statement about an exit from that,” Oleksandr Turchynov, secretary of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine, said in a statement.
Moscow said it was motivated by humanitarian concerns, saying the decision would give residents of east Ukraine access to Russian public services and air and rail travel. Russia had previously denied quietly allowing the use of documents from the separatist republics, although an investigation earlier last year by the RBC television station showed that the documents were often accepted instead of Russian passports.
The executive order also covers license plates, marriage and divorce certificates, and university diplomas issued in southeast Ukraine.
The United States has previously punished Russia with sanctions for taking steps to integrate Crimea into mainland Russia. Banks and other companies doing business in Crimea have also been targeted.
The decision came just hours after a highly anticipated speech by Vice President Pence in Munich, where he reassured European allies that the United States would urge Russia to respect the Minsk Agreement.
“Know this: The United States will continue to hold Russia accountable, even as we search for new common ground, which as you know President Trump believes can be found,” Pence said.