Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree Wednesday to expedite the applications from some Ukrainians living in areas held by Russia-backed separatists in under three months. Those granted Russian citizenship would have to swear allegiance to Russia.
In a joint statement, France and Germany — European guarantors of the 2015 Minsk peace accord — said the Russian decree "goes against the spirit and aims of the Minsk agreement" that aims to bring peace to Ukraine's volatile east but remains largely unimplemented.
"This is the opposite of the urgently necessary contribution toward de-escalation," the German foreign ministry said about eastern Ukraine, where more than 13,000 people have been killed in fighting between Ukrainian troops and Russian-backed separatists.
European Commission spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic said, "We expect Russia to refrain from actions that are against the Minsk agreements and impede the full reintegration of the non-government controlled areas into Ukraine."
She described the move as "another attack on Ukraine's sovereignty by Russia." Putin defended his decision on Thursday, saying it would help people stranded in areas where Ukrainian government services are not available.
The EU imposed sanctions on Russia in 2014 after it annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and has continued to prolong the punitive measures over what it maintains is Moscow's foot-dragging in respecting the Minsk peace agreement.
Later Thursday, Ukraine's U.N. ambassador, Volodymyr Yelchenko, asked the U.N. Security Council "to condemn resolutely the destructive and illegal actions of the Russian authorities" — even if Russia protested and used its veto.
But the U.N.'s most powerful body took no action after an acrimonious meeting during which Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia clashed with Yelchenko and diplomats from many other countries opposed to Moscow's announcement.
Germany's U.N. ambassador, Christoph Heusgen, the current council president, told reporters afterward that Ukraine's request for a briefing on Russia's action was on short notice, and "there was just not time at this stage."
The United Nations says 1.5 million people have been displaced by the conflict and 3.5 million need humanitarian assistance and protection. U.N. political chief Rosemary DiCarlo said in a briefing to the Security Council that diplomatic efforts should be revitalized "with greater resolve and urgency" following Sunday's landslide presidential victory in Ukraine by Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a TV star with no political experience.
She urged the parties "to undertake steps that would decrease the current tensions and allow the resumption of constructive dialogue." Kocijancic, the European Commission spokeswoman, described said signing the new decree just days after Ukraine's election "shows Russia's intention to further destabilize Ukraine and to exacerbate the conflict."
Zelenskiy said Russia's move confirms its role as an "aggressor state" in the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Nebenzia, Russia's U.N. envoy, said at the Security Council that "Russia is not imposing citizenship on people." But, he said, people in eastern Ukraine "deserve once again to be under care of a state."
"The key to resolving the Ukrainian issue is to be found in Kiev, not in Moscow," Nebenzia said. "The signals that we're getting from President-elect Zelenskiy are at this point contradictory," he said. "We are sincerely interested in making sure that he undertakes real steps to settle the situation. But we will see through his action ... and time will tell."
Associated Press writers Frank Jordans in Berlin, Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.