Weaponized Citizenship: Should international law restrict oppressive nationality attribution?

The Weaponization of More than Citizenship

Eleanor Knott (London School of Economics)

I approach the topic of weaponized citizenship through an empirical – albeit critical – lens regarding the world how it is rather than through a normative lens of how the world ought to be. Neither approach or perspective is better or worse; both need the other for cross-fertilization of ideas and insights. Rather, I note my empirical perspective to indicate the position I come from when considering the concept of weaponized citizenship and assessing its utility in the contexts where I have researched dual citizenship.

In this response, I do not dispute the usefulness of weaponized citizenship as a concept and political practice. Neha Jain indicates many poignant instances where weaponized citizenship has been used by states who hollow out, offshore, or impose citizenship as part of coercive, oppressive, and authoritarian politics. My point is that empirical nuance is needed when understanding actual or potential instances of weaponized citizenship. In particular, it is important to revisit when and under what conditions citizenship has been weaponized, such as in passportization policies, which are the focus of my response.

Adding empirical nuance is not only about disputing facts or laying bear that weaponization of citizenship can occur before, or as a consequence of, conflict. Empirical nuance also demonstrates how it is not only citizenship that can be weaponized by authoritarian nationalist states. First, states like Russia are also weaponizing fuzzier concepts of quasi-citizenship. While domestic law and international norms offer some legal codification of citizenship, there is no such codification for quasi-citizenship. Second, states like Russia (in particular) are weaponizing ethno-nationalist claims offering protection – via annexation and conflict – to external co-ethnic communities, whether or not such external co-ethnic communities view themselves as needing, or consenting to, protection.

Weaponization of citizenship: before or after annexation?

First, we should question what we know, or what we think we know, about when Crimea was passportized: whether before or after annexation.

Suppose Crimea’s residents were passportized by Russia before annexation. In that case, this process points to very different analytical insights and alters our understanding of annexation and passportization, compared to a situation where Crimea’s residents were passportized after annexation. In the former case, we would view passportization as a precursor to annexation and as a sign of Crimea’s and Ukraine’s weakness vis-à-vis Russia. We might view Crimea’s residents’ Russian citizenship status as indicating that annexation was almost an inevitable consequence of passportization as it may seem that Crimea’s residents supported annexation as Russian citizens. But, if Crimea’s residents were passportized after annexation, then we would view passportization differently: as a consequence of annexation rather than a cause or a symptom of Ukraine’s weakness and as an imposed practice following annexation rather than preceding it.

Neha Jain suggests that Russian passportization preceded, and was a precursor of, Russia’s annexation of Crimea. In particular, drawing on Anne Peters, Jain suggests that Russian passportization occurred in Crimea as early as 1991 and resulted in massive conferral of Russian citizenship. Moreover, Jain claims that passportization in Crimea preceded – and thus repeated – that same policy in Abkhazia and South Ossetia after 2002, and before Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008. The implication is that passportization in Crimea was a long-standing policy of mass conferral of Russian citizenship in contested territories in the “near abroad” preceding invasion or annexation.

But Anne Peters herself offers a few caveats that Jain misses. Importantly, Peters suggests that “an active Russian ‘passportization’ policy” was “allegedly” pursued in Crimea since 1991. Given this uncertainty, she chooses not to include Crimea as a case. Instead, her analysis focuses on the “most conspicuous and documented instances of Russian extraterritorial naturalization policies, namely in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transnistria”.

As Peters outlines, but Jain misses, the nature of Crimea’s passportization is messier and less clear compared to other cases where en masse conferral of Russian passports is more easily identifiable.   

That Crimea was passportized by Russia prior to annexation is an often-repeated statement as if it were a fact. Many scholars and policy observers, including Jakob Hedenskog and Merle Maigre, have suggested that Crimea was passportized long before annexation. Similarly, Taras Kuzio indicates that up to one hundred thousand of Crimea’s residents were passportized by Russia as of 2008.

Before annexation, this lens of passportization was used to suggest that Crimea was “next” on Russia’s violent roadmap. After annexation, scholars described passportization as a “post-factum” justification for Russia’s annexation of Crimea. For example, Charles King suggested that passportization made Crimea susceptible to annexation by Russia, as if Crimea’s residents supported annexation because they were already Russian citizens. Such perspectives suggest annexation was a fait accompli because of passportization.

But numbers, such as those quoted by Kuzio, are difficult to trace back to original sources and skate over the reality of who were Russian citizens in Crimea prior to annexation. In the main, Russian citizens were not ordinary residents of Crimea, but those associated with the Russian military base in Crimea, including military pensioners.

Individual Agency and the Lens of Passportization

Moreover, the lens of passportization denies agency to those assumed to have been passportized. It grants agency to the state passportizing but not to the individuals being passportized. Restoring agency is also about addressing consent as an empirical question. Did Crimea’s residents want Russian citizenship or not? Why? What kind of individuals wanted Russian citizenship or had Russian citizenship? How did they acquire it? And after acquisition, how did they use it?

I address these questions in my recently published monograph, Kin Majorities. Specifically, I explore who wanted Russian citizenship, who had Russian citizenship, and how Russian citizenship practices of acquisition aligned (or did not) with self-identification of people as ethnically Russian and with the Russian state.

In my fieldwork conducted in 2012 and 2013, months before annexation, none of my interviewees in Crimea had Russian citizenship. Moreover, very few participants wanted Russian citizenship. Most saw Russian citizenship not only as unavailable and accessible, at least through legal means, but as illegitimate and undesirable. For them, Russian citizenship conferred rights that they neither wanted nor needed.

A small minority of participants in Crimea did want Russian citizenship as a leverage against Ukraine. They saw Russian citizenship as a way to gain greater rights and protection within Ukraine. But this small minority was also a very specific constituency of participants, associated with pro-Russian organizations and the pro-Russian political party. Only those associated with such associations saw ethnic Russians and Russian speakers in Crimea as discriminated against. All other participants regarded these claims as ridiculous and the pro-Russian associations as political losers, given their marginal place in Crimean politics and their poor election results before 2014. It is the leaders of these pro-Russian associations that came to power as a result of annexation.   

Weaponization of Citizenship as a Consequence of Annexation in Crimea

I agree with Wrighton, who argues that Crimea’s residents were passportized after rather than prior to annexation. After annexation, en masse conferral of Russian citizenship was used as a coercive practice by an annexing power to force individuals – in a “climate of fear and repression” – to become Russian citizens. The options to remain resident were either acquiring Russian citizenship, to retain property and other rights, or registering as a foreigner. As dissenting Russian politicians suggested, passportization after annexation made Crimea not a republic but “a concentration camp inside Russia”. In doing so, Russia willingly breached the Geneva Convention, for example, by forcibly requiring state employees to renounce Ukrainian citizenship.

As I outline above, it is important to identify when weaponization of citizenship takes place, in particular, to find out when it occurs in relation to conflict. Passportization unlikely occurred as a precursor to conflict in the case of Crimea. Instead, it occurred during and as a consequence of violent conflict, via Russia’s annexation.

However, in Crimea, Russia not only weaponized citizenship but also forms of quasi-citizenship. In March 2014, Putin suggested that both Russian citizens and those Russia claimed as ‘compatriots’ in Crimea were at an alleged risk and needed the Russian state to intervene to protect them.

Weaponization Beyond Citizenship and the Expanding Weaponization of Citizenship

In 2008 in Georgia, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia, Russia weaponized only citizenship, albeit citizenship achieved via passportization policies. But in 2014, the weaponized community expanded beyond citizens and citizenship, to include fuzzier constituencies of those Russia claimed as compatriots.

Again, following Jain, we return to the issue of consent: no one asks individuals whether they want to be regarded as quasi-citizens, and whether they want such claims of quasi-citizen status to be weaponized. Moreover, the states where these individuals reside are not asked for consent since these claims precisely take place in the context of conflict, war, occupation, and/or invasion.

Keeping pace with the community that authoritarian, ethno-nationalist, and violent states wish to weaponize is, therefore, a challenge. This eventuality does not weaken the concept of weaponized citizenship but should make us mindful of how such a concept can become blunted if it is expanded by political actors.

Following the weaponization of ‘compatriots’ in Crimea, as a category of quasi-citizens, Russia laid broader citizenship claims to Ukraine before launching war and invasion on 24 February 2022. As Igor Zevelev shows, Russia first facilitated fast-track naturalization to residents of the Donetsk and Luhansk ‘People’s Republics’ (the DNR and LNR) in 2019, before then granting such fast-track naturalization to the larger constituency of those residing in the oblasts/regions of Donetsk and Luhansk (7 million people). In other words, Russia first opened up rights to those residing in regions where Russia had stoked conflict, before expanding these rights to regions where Russia had not yet stoked conflict but would in 2022. In 2020, Russia expanded fast-track naturalization even further to all citizens of Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Moldova.

Jelena Dzankic is right that Russia considers its actions of expansionary citizenship acquisition beyond its borders as lawful. However, Russia’s actions are not lawful in the eyes of states, like Ukraine, that forbid acquisition of dual citizenship. This legal contrast raises again the question of how we regulate, or not, citizenship when states disagree about lawfulness of citizenship acquisition across borders, in particular when they are viewed precisely as aggressive threats to sovereignty. Moreover, what do we do in cases of weaponized quasi-citizenship or ethnic claims? Such claims are less legally codified than citizenship and involve similar issues about consent – no one asks individuals of such weaponized claims if they accept or identify with them.

As Jain concludes, Russia’s war against and invasion of Ukraine holds important consequences for the concept of citizenship. Citizenship can imply a ‘personal annexation’, with weaponization of citizenship via passportization a stark and alarming precursor to conflict. Whereas such weaponization occurred as a consequence of annexation in Crimea, Russia has since weaponized citizenship again as a precursor to conflict, as it did in 2008 in Georgia.

However, Russia is not only weaponizing citizenship. It is weaponizing what it means to be ethnically Russian and a Russian speaker where Russia can manufacture claims of oppression as pretext for intervention, even where such conflict means indiscriminately killing Ukrainian citizens, whether ethnic Ukrainians or ethnic Russians, speakers of Ukrainian or speakers of Russian.