KYIV (Reuters) -Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on Thursday that Russia's issuance of its passports to residents of eastern Ukraine was the first step towards annexation of the region.
"This is definitely the first step, because the same thing happened once in Crimea, Crimea residents were given Russian passports. This is a big problem," Zelenskiy told a news conference.
Russia's TASS news agency quoted official sources as saying that more than 527,000 Russian passports had been handed out in Donbass since April 2019.
Ukrainian authorities have said at least 400,000 Russian passports were distributed among residents in eastern Ukraine and the need to protect these people can be used as an excuse or a pretext for a possible open aggression against Ukraine.
Relations between Moscow and Kyiv collapsed after Russia annexed the Ukrainian region of Crimea in 2014 and Russian-backed separatists took control of a chunk of eastern Ukraine that same year.
Tensions have flared again in recent months after the two countries traded blame for an uptick in fighting in eastern Ukraine, and Russia, in what it called a defensive exercise, massed troops on its western border with Ukraine and in Crimea.
Russia built up more than 100,000 military personnel near the Ukrainian border and continues to maintain them despite a promise to withdraw troops, Zelenskiy said, adding that the tension on the border could continue.
"They (Russian forces) are moving away very, very slowly. (This is) a serious situation and I think that such tension may be until the end of military exercises, at least until September," he said.
Zelenskiy said Ukraine's western partners had largely contributed to easing tensions in relations between Kyiv and Moscow, but recently their pressure on the Kremlin has eased.
"I feel their support, but I think they should support us more," Zelenskiy said.
(Reporting by Pavel Polityuk and Natalia Zinest; Editing by Alison Williams, William Maclean)