THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C.
MODERATOR: Great. Well, good morning and welcome to today’s Foreign Press Center briefing on the forced naturalization of residents of the Russia-occupied parts of Ukraine known as passportization. My name is Doris Robinson, and I am the briefing moderator. Today’s briefing is on the record, and we will post the transcript later today at fpc.state.gov. Joining us today are Nathaniel Raymond, Executive Director of Yale’s Humanitarian Lab, and Caitlin Howarth, Director of the Conflict Observatory team. They will start with opening remarks, and then we will open it up for your questions. Over to you, Nathaniel.
MR RAYMOND: Thank you so much, Doris. And it’s a pleasure to be here as always with the State Department Foreign Press Center. I want to begin – while we pull up the deck – with just some contextualizing remarks about why the issue of forced passportization of Ukrainians who are living in Russia’s occupied areas, primarily Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, is so important. National identity and access to documents such as passports are critical for multiple aspects of daily life in occupied areas. From accessing utilities such as electricity; to being able to own property; to being able to access public benefits, such as maternal benefits for newborns and their families; and the ability to access medical care and humanitarian assistance, all depend on having a Russian passport.
As we see in our research, there have been a series of decrees beginning last year coming from the Kremlin itself that has mandated that people living in the occupied areas accept Russian citizenship. The impact of this move can’t be overstated. For thousands of Ukrainians living in occupied areas, failing to accept Russian citizenship could mean direct impacts to their lives, livelihoods, and their ability to access basic services. If they do not accept, the consequences are dire. They could be in some cases detained, deported into Russia, and in the meantime, they are already losing access to the things they need to survive. This campaign of passportization is not without precedent. Russia in Georgia, in Crimea, in Luhansk and Donetsk has engaged long before the February 2022 illegal invasion of Ukraine in campaigns of passportization in areas that they control. Can we have the first slide?
I want to walk through five key findings. First, this is happening from the top down. Russia has enacted a series of laws that from the Kremlin are forcing residents of occupied areas to acquire Russian citizenship. But that is being – in our second finding – implemented by local authorities who are interpreting that decree to deny those without Russian citizenship the necessities of life, including humanitarian aid. And if by July 2024 individuals have not acquired Russian citizenship, at that point they can be detained or removed abroad, including to even remote areas of Russia.
An important point here: citizenship is conditional. It is subject to denaturalization, as we write in the report, for a series of minor offenses. Those can include: participation in rallies, criticizing the army, or criticizing the invasion. And that can lead – in certain cases – people to be effectively stateless. And then the overall headline here: these actions may constitute a war crime through violating the Hague Convention and the Geneva Convention, which lays out critical obligations for occupying powers, which in this case Russia, to respect the original citizenship of those under their control in occupied areas. Next slide.
Here, you can see some of the specific relevant international law violations, but basically we can summarize this and say because you occupy an area during a time of war, it doesn’t mean that you can (a) force people to swear allegiance to the occupying power, (b) you can’t force judges and public officials to also swear allegiance. And what we see here is that right now public officials, public employees are being required already to accept Russian passports. And lastly, when you’re the occupying power, you can’t discriminate who gets basic shelter, medical care, food, resources that you are obligated to provide for the sustaining of life under Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions. Next slide.
Caitlin Howarth is going to walk us through how we arrived at our findings and talk about how we do our work, not only in this report but in general. Caitlin.
MS HOWARTH: Thank you. Our methodology for this report focused primarily on the use of open source data. And in order to meet the standards that we set, we followed the Berkely Protocol on digital open-source investigations. So the data that you’re reading in this report follows a series of very careful steps for collection, verification, archival, and cross-referencing. We collected social media posts by residents themselves, posts by occupation authorities, official decrees that were issued by occupation authorities that would be posted on their official social media or websites. We looked at laws and decrees of Russia’s federal government, and we looked at reporting by news and human rights organizations.
In all of these cases, we never take a single post at face value. It always has to be crossreferenced and verified by additional sources. Everything has to check out, everything has to align, everything needs to be made sure that it’s consistent with what other activities and events that are happening at that same time and place.
There are still some important limitations that happen when we’re utilizing these sources. For one thing, there are always reporting biases that happen no matter who the source is, and those always have to be taken into account. That’s why we never take any single source at its own face value.
We also always have to deal with the fact that unfortunately some of our resources, such as the use of satellite imagery, are not always the most helpful for certain types of analysis and investigation, and that was unfortunately the case with this investigation. Because this looked so much into legal dynamics and the use of essentially paperwork, that was – unfortunately the types of facilities that this was happening at was less of a factor for this investigation. So you’ll see less of that in this report, and much more use on the document (inaudible). We can go to the next slide.
I’m now going to hand it back to Nathaniel, who’s going to walk you through exactly how de jure passportization happens across Russia.
MR RAYMOND: Thanks, Caitlin. That was really helpful and excellent. So as we look at the tick-tock here, we see that this did not come out of nowhere. In April 2019, Decree Number 183 basically starts to simplify the naturalization process for residents in Luhansk and Donetsk who were at that point, prior to the invasion, under Russia’s occupation. We then skip forward almost three years to Russia’s full-scale invasion. Soon thereafter in May 2022, we see a new decree, Decree Number 304. That extends basically what we saw in Luhansk and Donetsk to the now occupied areas of Zaporizhzhia and Kherson.
Moving forward into this year, we see a federal law come from the Kremlin in the Duma, 62FZ. That creates basically another simplified mechanism for unilateral renunciation of Ukrainian citizenship, and as I mentioned before, that’s made mandatory for public employees but will be scaled in the months ahead.
We go to the next month after that, just barely a month after Federal Law 62-FZ, and we see Decree Number 307. And that states that basically those who are living in the oblast, the states or provinces, who do not have Russian citizenship are considered in their own country foreigners, stateless, and that opens them to liability to be detained or deported. Okay, so this is the legal framework on the Russian side. Let’s go to the next slide.
It’s one thing to make a decree; it’s another thing to implement that. So we begin to see that occupation authorities develop administrative means that execute these decrees and laws. So we see an interdepartmental working group has been established, and they are beginning to put in place the ability to expel and deport people within DPR, Donetsk People’s Republic. Next slide.
And so these actions, as they become implemented, have some real-life implications for highly vulnerable citizens living in these areas. So it means that public sector employment can be restricted for certain people; ownership of businesses; the ability to move produce to market. There are threats now to seize property or to designate property as, quote, “ownerless” because of the national status of individuals. And then this is happening within the context of evidence we have presented previously on filtration, which involves fingerprinting, checkpoints, interrogations at home, and when traveling. Next slide.
So again, I just want to take a step back here and really contextualize how the right that is protected under the economic and – the covenant on cultural, economic, and social rights, and the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, that Russia is party to, how when you affect people’s ability to have a national identity, it really radiates and has implications throughout all of the aspects of their daily life.
So this means that health insurance is being restricted. The ability to set up a account for electricity is being restricted. Getting a driver’s license, registering your vehicles, and then being able to have housing certificates necessary to establish residence, is now limited to Russian passport holders. Next slide.
MS HOWARTH: If I can jump in for just a moment, we would also note that there’s an important step that’s implied with all of this, which is the criminalization of those who do not take these steps. So because the acts of basic life are so fundamental, anyone who does not take them is then subject to criminal sanction just for living out their everyday life, trying to drive to get to work, trying to conduct their business if they – especially when they have a simple sole proprietorship, or get medical care for their children. Back to you, Natty.
MR RAYMOND: And so as Caitlin’s saying, this affects real-life people and highly vulnerable people. So who are some of those people? Well, most notably kids. For children, parents of newborns now have to have a passport in order to get basic maternal benefits going forward. That has real impact on kids. As of July 2024, newborns will be forced to be registered as Russians. There is – as we’ve documented in our children’s report in February of this year, there are threats of removing children from parents. There are additionally, across all of this, an elevated risk of statelessness both for parents and for kids.
We also see this playing out specifically for those who are affected by the recent destruction of the dam. There is denial of recovery and reconstruction aid happening along lines of who holds what type of national citizenship documents; alleged denial of humanitarian aid seen in open-source reporting; and then targeting those internally displaced persons who lost their home after the dam was destroyed for passportization. I’m going to hand it back over to Caitlin on the next slide.
MS HOWARTH: As part of this process, there was a amendment to this federal law on citizenship that significantly expands the grounds for the denaturalization of those who have acquired citizenship. This is a really important step, because what this does is it effectively creates the grounds for rapidly denaturalizing those who have acquired this additional passport, lost – like under Russia’s law they have then lost their citizenship of Ukraine.
And yet, if they are then accused of discrediting or spreading (inaudible) about the army and volunteers; if they are accused of repeated violations of the law on rallies – in other words, gathering in any number, which could be a very small number; if they’re accused of evasion of military service – again, for an occupying power – if they’re accused of desertion of that military service; they’re accused of failure to comply with the law on foreign agents or actions that pose a threat to national security, which is a very broad remit – any of those then that creates the grounds for essentially making these people functionally stateless.
All of this essentially makes it extremely difficult for people who are living under an occupying power to live and to live freely, and essentially creates the threat of denying not only their legal status but all of the things that we just outlined at any time, while also facing additional criminal sanction. Next slide.
Of course, there’s further implications for all of this. The Ukrainian Government has made it clear that Russia’s – and Russia’s government has also made it clear that Russia has no intention to share any data with Ukraine on who is actually going through this process. This is a one-way street when it comes to data, which is a significant departure from the way that these matters are normally handled and does create some important national security gaps. There’s the intentional destruction and seizure of official documents with Ukraine’s passports, all of which calls into question exactly what is happening with those documents, what is – where there is potential for other things to sort of fall through gaps.
When it comes to population selection, we’re seeing significant patterns in which these matters are preceded by filtration activities, targeted detentions, and disappearances. And we have in the past documented the use of torture as part of these detentions and filtration (inaudible), including those that are filtering out and explicitly targeting men and boys. We’re seeing that those who are unwilling to accept citizenship are specifically removed from the population and their whereabouts are unclear in many cases. We’re seeing that this has been utilized in some ways for population control. The threat of denaturalization and effective statelessness is – can be a very effective manner to keep a population under one’s effective control and to ensure that they are exactly where one knows that they will be, and to keep tabs on them at any given time.
All of this is incredibly important to understand, again, that none of this is done in a manner that is in any way chaotic or ad hoc or improvisational. This is following a tried and true series of methods and steps that have been tested out in – sort of in beta in other places, as we’ve previously shown through Russia’s history in the so-called breakaway regions in Georgia, in Abkhazia, in so many other countries throughout the Soviet period. This is following a playbook that’s well known. Next slide.
STAFF: This is actually the last slide, Caitlin.
MS HOWARTH: Sorry. Thank you. With that, I think we’re ready to take it back, Natty, if you want to close and then we’ll go to questions.
MR RAYMOND: In short, what this activity by Russia really communicates is this is a new and important facet in its effort to obliterate Ukrainian national identity. From the deportation and transfer of children, from the passportization program to the filtration program itself, Russia, even before its invasion in February 2022, has been trying to deny the people of Ukraine the ability to be and to remain Ukrainians. That is a violation of international law. It’s a violation of the law of armed conflict. It’s a violation of international human rights standards, and it’s a violation of common decency.
With that, I’ll turn it back to Doris and your questions.
MODERATOR: Great, thank you so much. And we will now go to the question-and-answer session. If you have a question, please hit the raise hand icon at the bottom of the screen to signify that you have a question. You may also type your question in the chat field at the bottom of the screen as well. So we’ll just give it a second to see if we have any questions.
And I’ll just say again if you have a question, please hit the raise hand icon at the bottom of the screen, or you can also type your question into the participant chat field. It doesn’t look like we have any questions at this time. Natty, did you want to talk a little bit more about the report?
MR RAYMOND: I just want to say that as you cover Ukraine going forward, this is a issue that needs to be part of your reporting, because it crisscrosses all aspects of life for those under occupation. And so consider this report a lens for looking at the issues that have happened to date in the occupied areas – primarily Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, but also the so-called DPR and LPR – and it is a roadmap to the issues that those who continue to live under occupation will confront. And so this is not a one-and-done story. This is really a lens for looking at the violation of rights for those under Russia’s occupation, with a clear focus on how the denaturalization process is affecting everyday life for average Ukrainians under occupation. We really appreciate you taking the time today, and please reach out to the Foreign Press Center if you have additional thoughts or questions after this briefing concludes.
MODERATOR: And Caitlin, did you want to make any closing comments?
MS HOWARTH: I think only to say that the Government of Ukraine has made it very clear that it does not consider the forced passportization, the forced – or any other options in terms of forced denaturalization to be legitimate. As far as the Government of Ukraine is concerned, what we clearly document in this report is that it considers its citizens to remain its citizens.
That being said, it should also be clear to those who are reading this that this is an extremely compulsory process at every step – every step along the way. There’s a reason that we chose the cover image that we did. There is nothing about this, including the manner in which the occupation forces are even going door to door to have people fill out paperwork – nothing about this is done in a way that does not put people under extreme pressure to comply. And so that needs to be understood. If you were in the same position, how any of us would have to respond would be – it would be extremely difficult for anyone. And for those who do continue to resist – and there are those who continue to resist – the consequences are quite severe.
There are – I would also just quickly point out one detail. When we – as you all know, we continue our investigations into the impact on children in this conflict. One of the details that you’ll see documented is how, for children who are – who have to gain compulsory medical insurance in order to gain access to medical care, by the time they are the age of 14, children must have a Russian passport and one of those compulsory medical insurance policies in order to gain access to medical care by the age of 14. So I want to make sure that that was also called out to you as one of the many important findings in this report.
And with that, I just want to thank you all for coming here today and thank the Foreign Press Center and Doris for all the excellent work that you support as well. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you. Thank you so much. And if any of the journalists have follow-up questions, we will share those with you all. And I just want to thank everyone for joining us today for this briefing. Nathaniel Raymond, again, is the director of the conflict observatory team. And Caitlin Howarth – I’m sorry, he’s the executive director of the Yale Humanitarian Lab, and Caitlin Howarth, she is the director of the conflict observatory team. And this concludes today’s briefing.