But as those talks have stalled, Ukraine has effectively cut off the territories, forcing Russia to foot the costly bill for energy, public sector salaries and some food aid.
“Ukraine refuses to recognize them as its citizens, imposing an economic blockade, not allowing them to vote, using armed force against them,” Vladislav Y. Surkov, the Kremlin aide who runs Ukraine policy, told the TASS news agency. “After they will receive passports, people will feel more protected, they will feel freer.”
Russia has shown little appetite for annexing the territories outright, given the costs involved.
The passport issue might also help resolve one aspect of the conflict. Volodymyr O. Zelensky, the television comedian who defeated President Petro O. Poroshenko in the presidential election this month, has said he would not grant amnesty to anyone who fought against Ukraine in the war. So, granting Russian passports would be a way to ease pro-Russian veterans from Ukraine.
In addition, Mr. Putin has failed in his attempts to bolster Russia’s flagging demographic numbers, so an influx of new citizens would be welcome. Since the conflict erupted in 2014, some 400,000 Ukrainians have obtained Russian citizenship, Russian news outlets have reported, many of them in Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014.
The Kremlin was happy to see the defeat of Mr. Poroshenko, an implacable opponent, and hopes that escalating the conflict now will force Mr. Zelensky to make relations with the Kremlin a priority. If the incoming government worked to implement a peace plan, Mr. Putin said, “we will do everything to normalize the situation in Ukraine’s southeast.”