Russia’s Citizenship Power-Play in Ukraine is Pretty Weak
Russian Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev yesterday announced a legislative initiative to fast-track citizenship for non-resident native Russian speakers. He didn’t single out ethnic Russians in Ukraine, but the context says it all. The citizenship shift (variations of which have been floated since the Maidan erupted last month) would allow Russia to amplify its protective justification for the action in Crimea. It wouldn’t just be protecting co-ethnics, it would be protecting fellow citizens. Russia similarly put citizenship policy to use in the South Ossetia action in 2008.
1. The citizenship policy would be consistent with international law. The only constraint on the extension of citizenship after birth is that it be volitional on the part of the individual. Russia couldn’t simply impose Russian citizenship on Ukrainians en masse, for example. Otherwise, citizenship policies can be as relaxed as a country wants them to be (it’s when they are too tough that international norms come into play). Russia certainly has a closer link to Russian speakers in Ukraine than, for instance, most Sephardic Jews do to Spain, and yet nobody is complaining about the latter.
2. Protecting citizens abroad does not justify uses of force or other acts of aggression. Putin is working from the 19th/20th century playbook in framing military action in protective terms. That’s the irksome part: integrating citizenship policy into expansionist designs. (Spain is not going to use the pretext of protecting Sephardim as the basis for military operations in France.) Traditional international law accepted the use of force to protect nationals against foreign depredations — the U.S. justified scores of military actions on that basis (presidents still do, as a matter of domestic constitutional law, for purposes of constitutionally legitimating the use of force in the absence of congressional approval). Leaving aside narrow exceptions — military deployments should be consistent with international law where necessary to safely evacuate citizens from trouble zones — that’s no longer okay. In other words, the presence of even a large number of Russian citizens in Ukraine adds no weight to Russia’s case for military intervention.
3. Ukraine’s threatened criminalization of dual citizenship is more problematic. Ukraine prohibits dual citizenship, though the ban is apparently underenforced. By way of a counter-move to the Russian proposal, a bill before the Ukraine parliament would impose fines on dual citizens. Dual citizen voting and office-holding would be subject to prison sentences of up to 10 years. Other countries bar dual citizens from officeholding (many through constitutional bars); none bars dual citizen voting. Prison sentences for either would be without precedent. Ukraine would be on firmer ground stripping the citizenship of those having or acquiring Russian citizenship. But that move would create problems of its own, and would hand Russia an additional argument in the (largely false) narrative that Russians are being oppressed in Ukraine.
The bottom line: this is a nothing-burger. Probably the most important consequence of the new Russian policy would be to open the door for newly minted citizens to move to Russia. If Russia’s happy having them, that’s its business, not ours.