Russian President Vladimir Putin said Monday that Ukrainians and Russians were "one people" and would benefit from common citizenship, after he angered Kiev by offering to fast-track Russian passports for Ukrainians.
"I've said many times that Ukrainians and Russians are brotherly nations. More over, I believe that they are essentially one people with various cultural, linguistic and historic peculiarities," a smiling Putin told reporters.
"If Ukraine gives passports to Russians and we in Russia give passports and citizenship to Ukrainians then sooner or later we will inevitably have a predictable outcome -- everyone will have common citizenship."
"This should be welcomed," Putin said before saying "Goodbye" to reporters in Ukrainian.
Observers are closely watching for signs of a thaw in ties between Russia and Ukraine after a comedian with no political experience, Volodymyr Zelensky, won a landslide victory in presidential elections in Ukraine this month.
The Kremlin has not congratulated Zelensky, and in one of the first announcements after the vote Putin said Moscow was thinking of making it easier for all Ukrainians to obtain Russian citizenship.
Last week, Putin signed a decree allowing people living in breakaway regions of eastern Ukraine to receive a Russian passport within three months of applying for one.
Kiev and the West have condemned the decree, saying Putin is seeking to further destabilise Ukraine, while critics at home say the move would be a major burden for the already-struggling Russian economy.
In 2014, Moscow annexed Crimea and moved to support Russian-speaking separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Some in Kiev and the West worry that Moscow's offer of citizenship to Ukrainians would give the Kremlin a justification to move troops across the border under the pretext of protecting the interests of Russian nationals.
Zelensky, in response, has pledged to grant Ukrainian citizenship to Russians who "suffer" under Kremlin rule.
Zelensky said he doubted many Ukrainians would take Moscow up on its offer because a Russian passport means "the right to be arrested for a peaceful protest" and "the right not to have free and competitive elections."
Putin on Monday appeared to go out of his way to show he was not offended.
"We have a lot in common," he said, referring to Zelensky. "It means we'll find a common language."
Zelensky's critics, led by outgoing president Petro Poroshenko, have said the 41-year-old political novice will not be able to stand up to Putin.
He is due to take office by early June.
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