In a new challenge for Ukraine on Wednesday, President Vladimir Putin offered Russian citizens passports to the inhabitants of eastern Ukraine.
Putin did this to consolidate his control over the Ukrainian provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk (they call the Provinces of Oblast) and give Russia an excuse to escalate into Kiev if so desired. Putin's timing here is not surprising. A few days after the election of Volodymyr Zelenskiy as the next Ukrainian president, Putin presents the ground in eastern Ukraine in order to put the bargaining round in his favor. He dares that outgoing Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is now a lame duck and will risk no escalation against Russia or the rebels in Donetsk and Luhansk.
The announcement of citizenship, however, is aimed only at a broader strategic goal: Russian control of the Crimea and all areas east of the corridor Mariupol-Donetsk-Luhansk. Putin wants Zelenskiy to take office in June to make a bargain. An agreement in which Russian rebels end their artillery attacks in areas under the control of the Ukrainian government, and in return Zelenskiy ends the Russian control zones. Putin knows that this reciprocal agreement is crucial if he wants to receive sanctions from the European Union.
That is why we see this announcement of citizenship and Putin's rule over the Ukrainian waters in the Sea of Azov. The former KGB officer wants Zelenskiy to see only two options: to conclude an agreement with Moscow or to face increasing Russian pressure. And the guarantee gambit gives Putin an excuse to use more force "to protect Russian citizens."
The US should not accept it.
While President Trump has done more than President Barack Obama Putin's aggression in Ukraine This latest act should be in line with the tightened US sanctions against Moscow. In addition, in line with Zelenski's commitment to anti-corruption efforts, the US should sell more military equipment in Kiev. This answer will strengthen Zelenski's negotiating hand and make it clear to Putin that he alone can not dictate the future.