In June, the breach of the Kakhovka dam in eastern Ukraine—an area largely occupied by Russia—left thousands homeless. (Via The Guardian/YouTube)

In June, in a small town on the Dnieper River in southern Ukraine, an elderly couple sat in their attic, not by choice. They were waiting for the waters to recede from the breach of the Kakhovka dam that left their home awash in debris—and thousands homeless in this area of eastern Ukraine, largely occupied by Russia. (I’m not using the couple’s real names to protect their identities and those close to them.) The septuagenarians perched there for a week, drinking wine straight from bottles that the man, Borys, had the foresight to grab as he fled upstairs to safety. He also scurried to higher ground with Tupperware containers, gifts from his daughter. Amid the disaster, he thought she’d be angry if he let the expensive-by-Ukrainian-standards food storage get ruined. 

Borys, 74, and Halyna, 72, forgot essential documents in their scramble to survive, including their passports. 

Rescue efforts eventually reached the teetering home, which was fortunate. The Russian military often denies aid to locals in the illegally annexed portion of Ukraine. During the flooding, Russian soldiers even shot at Ukrainians operating rescue boats. As the couple boarded one such vessel, Halyna broke her leg badly. 

Things only got worse. The local hospital, brimming with wounded Russian soldiers, had little to offer. Its X-ray machine had long ago been looted. (Virtually every Ukrainian I spoke with in the country last year recalled similar tales of Russian soldiers coming through their towns, stealing anything of value and taking it with them.)But even if the machine had not been stolen, the hospital was forbidden from treating Halyna: She didn’t have a Russian passport. 

Ukrainians living in regions illegally annexed by Russia are being forced to accept Russian passports—in effect, to renounce their Ukrainian citizenship—or face punishing consequences. 

This month’s report from the Yale School of Public Health’s Humanitarian Research Lab details the hardships imposed on Ukrainians in the Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhya regions, or oblasts, who refuse to submit and accept a Russian passport.  

Ukrainians who decline a Russian passport face deportation and detention. According to the report, the occupying authorities deny them health care, education, and humanitarian aid. This forced renunciation of Ukrainian citizenship is particularly painful for those suffering from the Kakhovka dam disaster, like Borys and Halyna. Russian authorities refuse to compensate anyone for flood losses who has not accepted a Moscow-issued passport. One source who asked not to be named said that resourceful Ukrainians are arranging secret home visits with doctors. 

“It’s impossible for people to remain in the occupied areas without Russian citizenship,” said one report author, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution. “Their options are to accept Russian citizenship and everything that comes with that, including—for young men—recruitment into Russia’s armed forces. Or they could try to stay without work, without the ability to drive, without their property.” 

To add to the indignity, Russia withholds rights even from those who consent to accepting a Russian passport. They have what’s called “acquired citizenship,” which leaves them vulnerable to denaturalization at any time, effectively making them second-class citizens, the report authors write. 

Russia’s forced allegiance of an entire people, and the discrimination against those who refuse to consent, is illegal under the Hague and Geneva Conventions. And while it may seem like Russia is within its legal rights to coerce rather than force citizenship, consider that as of July 2024, Ukrainians who maintain their allegiance to Kyiv can be detained or deported—including to remote areas of Russia—according to an April decree by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Anyone without Russian citizenship is considered a foreigner or “stateless,” just as Georgians were deemed during the 2008 Russian incursion into their country. Being stateless leaves one open to detention and persecution. 

To that end, the Russian government plans to create detention facilities for “foreign citizens” in Donetsk Oblast, the report authors say. 

Russian imperialism and forced citizenship are not new. Moscow has carried out similar “passportization” in Crimea, Donetsk, and Luhansk, boasting of repatriating 1.5 million formerly Ukrainian citizens in Crimea just nine months after the 2014 takeover of the peninsula. Usurping people from neighboring countries gives what the report authors say is a casus belli for current and future conflicts, allowing Russia to claim that its actions are “legal efforts to protect its citizens from harm.”  

The process of becoming a Russian citizen has been dramatically accelerated and systematized. Under international law, such “Russification” is a potential crime against humanity. Having reported from Congo, Ukraine, and countries bordering Syria, I would argue that this occupation of Ukrainian soil, the destruction of Ukrainian cultural symbols, the rape of Ukrainian women, the abduction of children, and now the forced conversion of Ukrainians into Russian citizens may well meet the legal definition of genocide. 

The 1948 Genocide Convention codified it as a series of “acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group.” One means of doing this is to deliberately inflict on the group “conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.” By offering a so-called choice to accept Russian citizenship, Moscow can deny in future tribunals that it sought to exterminate a people whose history dates back over a millennium.  

But that may prove to be a specious claim. “These people have been living in these areas for a very, very long time, and now the border has moved,” said another report author, making them “foreigners in their own homes.”  

The elderly couple recently journeyed nine hours across Russian checkpoints to get to Kyiv for Halyna’s treatment. But she died earlier this week in a hospital in the capital city. The precise cause of death is unknown, but the break and the absence of treatment, doctors suspected, sped up the elderly woman’s demise, making her yet another casualty of Putin’s war on Ukraine.  

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!

Lauren Wolfe is an award-winning journalist who publishes Chills and teaches at NYU’s graduate school of journalism. Follow her on Twitter @Wolfe321.