In a new challenge to Ukraine on Wednesday, President Vladimir Putin offered Russian passports to residents of eastern Ukraine.

Putin did so in order to consolidate his control over Ukraine's Donetsk and Luhansk provinces (they call provinces "oblasts") and give Russia a pretext to escalate against Kiev should it desire. Putin's timing here is not surprising. Coming just a few days after the election of Volodymyr Zelenskiy as Ukraine's next president, Putin is shaping the ground in eastern Ukraine so as to set the negotiating ground in his favor. He's venturing that the outgoing Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is now a lame duck and will not risk escalation against Russia or the rebel forces it supports in Donetsk and Luhansk.

Map of Eastern Ukraine and Russia - 042419
(Image via Google Maps; annotations by Tom Rogan / Washington Examiner)

But the citizenship announcement is only designed toward a broader strategic objective: namely, Russia's assured control over Crimea and all territories east of the Mariupol-Donetsk-Luhansk corridor. Putin wants Zelenskiy to enter office in June with a view to cutting a grand bargain. A deal in which Russian-supported rebels end their artillery strikes on areas under Ukrainian government control, and in return, Zelenskiy stops contesting Russian control zones. Putin knows this mutual agreement is critical if he is to gain European Union sanctions relief.

That's why we're seeing this citizenship announcement and Putin's domination of Ukrainian waters in the Sea of Azov. The former KGB officer wants Zelenskiy to see only two choices: Cut a deal with Moscow or face ever-escalating Russian pressure. And the citizenship gambit gives Putin a pretext to use greater force "to protect Russian citizens."

The U.S. shouldn't accept it.

While President Trump has done more than President Barack Obama in resisting Putin's aggression in Ukraine, this latest act should meet tightened U.S. sanctions on Moscow. In addition, commensurate with Zelenskiy's commitment to anti-corruption efforts, the U.S. should sell Kiev more military equipment. That response will strengthen Zelenskiy's negotiating hand and make it clear to Putin that he cannot alone dictate the future.