MOSCOW Russia said on Monday President Vladimir Putin's decision to recognise passports issued by separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine complied with international law, after the move drew criticism from France, Germany and the European Union.
Putin on Saturday issued an order for Russian authorities to recognise identity documents, diplomas, birth and marriage certificates and vehicle registration plates issued in the separatist-held regions of Donetsk and Luhansk in east Ukraine.
The Kremlin said the legislation would be in place until a "political settlement of the situation" in these regions was reached. The peace deal brokered by Berlin and Paris between Kiev, Moscow and the Russia-backed rebels in Minsk in 2015 has long been stalled.
"The Russian Federation is working, first and foremost, on humanitarian grounds," the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement on its website.
"The order fully complies with international law, which does not prohibit the recognition of documents needed to implement the rights and freedoms granted by the authorities which are not internationally recognised."
Ukrainian authorities have denounced Putin's decision and say the order violates the Minsk peace process, criticisms echoed by France, Germany and the EU capital Brussels.
A German government spokesman said the move was "a stark contradiction to all that was agreed in Minsk".
An EU spokeswoman said the Russian decree was "not in keeping with the spirit of the Minsk agreements" and that the bloc would not recognise documents by the self-proclaimed rebel authorities in east Ukraine.
"The EU remains unwavering in its support for Ukraine's territorial integrity, sovereignty and unity," she said.
Fighting has recently escalated in the conflict between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, refocusing global attention on a simmering conflict that has strained relations between Russia and the West.
The February 2015 Minsk peace agreement locked the two sides into a stalemate which has been broken periodically by sharp resurgences in fighting that Kiev and the Kremlin accuse each other of instigating.
The foreign ministers of Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine met on Saturday in Munich and agreed to use their influence to implement a ceasefire and the withdrawal of heavy weapons from Monday in eastern Ukraine.
The EU, as well as the United States, slapped sanctions on Russia over its annexation of Ukraine's Crimea peninsula in March, 2014, and the rebellion in east Ukraine that started the following month.
(Reporting by Jack Stubbs in Moscow, Joseph Nasr and Michael Nienaber in Berlin, Brian Love in Paris and Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels; Editing by Ralph Boulton)