Justin Trudeau and Chrystia Freeland made personal appeals to persuade the Ukrainian government to not arrest and imprison former president Petro Poroshenko when he returned home in mid-January, two sources in Ottawa and one in Kyiv say.
After the Canadian intervention, the Ukrainian leadership decided to de-escalate a burgeoning internal crisis at a time of heightened tension with Russia, the Ukrainian source told The Globe and Mail.
The Globe has also learned there is a Liberal government cabinet split about the feasibility of supplying small arms to Ukraine’s army, with some members expressing concerns about exacerbating tensions with Moscow.
The cabinet dispute over small arms is centred on the fact that Germany and other European countries have not supplied lethal weapons, although one senior Canadian source said the matter remains under active consideration.
Before Mr. Poroshenko planned to return to Kyiv on Jan. 17, the Canadian sources said they learned that President Volodymyr Zelensky was going to order the arrest of the former leader on charges of treason and financing terrorism. Mr. Poroshenko returned to face the charges and appeared in court but a judge ruled that the former president would not be detained as he awaits trial.
The Ukrainian source says Mr. Zelensky, who appoints the prosecutor-general, changed his mind after a direct appeal from the Prime Minister and what turned out to be a far more important call from Ms. Freeland, the Deputy Prime Minister, to the President’s top adviser.
The Globe and Mail is not identifying the sources because they were not authorized to publicly discuss Canadian cabinet deliberations or private discussions with the Ukrainian government.
Ms. Freeland, who speaks fluent Ukrainian and has been a strong external voice for Ukraine’s independence from Moscow, spoke to Mr. Zelensky’s chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, in the days before Mr. Poroshenko was to fly to Kyiv. The sources in Ottawa and Kyiv say she warned that the arrest of the former president would send an antidemocratic message to the world and undermine efforts to bolster the country in the face of a threatened Russian invasion.
One of the Canadian sources said Ms. Freeland spoke about the importance of not undermining Ukrainian national unity as the country faces the threat of Russian aggression.
The source in Kyiv credits Ms. Freeland as the key intervention that changed the Ukrainian government’s plan to arrest the former president.
The other Canadian source said the Prime Minister made a similar appeal to Mr. Zelensky, explaining that this is not the time to be going after your political opponents. Mr. Trudeau told him that Ukraine needs all the friends it can get, and an arrest of a political opponent sends a bad message to Western allies.
The blunt message from Ms. Freeland, the source said, and the more diplomatic appeal from the Prime Minister got through to Mr. Zelensky. The source stressed that other Western officials, including U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken later delivered similar messages.
Ms. Freeland, whose mother helped draft Ukraine’s constitution, is a highly respected voice in Kyiv. President Vladimir Putin banned her from travelling to Russia after she became one of the leading Canadian voices calling for economic sanctions after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.
Much of the drama about Mr. Poroshenko unfolded while Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly was in Kyiv on an official visit. The Ukrainian source says Ms. Joly also made the case with her counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba.
On the issue of cabinet’s dispute over small-arms deliveries to Ukraine, one of the sources in Ottawa said the matter is still under active consideration. The source said the supplies were discussed in-depth by cabinet before last week’s announcement that Ottawa would extend its soldier-training mission for three years and provide non-lethal gear to Ukraine.
Cabinet decided against small arms because “certain ministers were not ready to go” but the source said those ministers felt Canada should not do so unless other allies, such as Germany, did the same. The source would not identify the ministers or say whether Ms. Freeland was a hawk on the issue.
The United States, Britain and several European countries have already begun to supply lethal weapons, such as anti-tank missiles and other offensive military hardware to Ukraine’s armed forces.
The charges of treason and financing terrorism against Mr. Poroshenko stem from his government’s purchases of coal from Ukraine’s Donbas region, part of which has been under the control of a Moscow-backed militia since 2014. Mr. Poroshenko has denied he did anything to help finance Ukraine’s enemies. His allies say the charges are politically motivated.
If convicted, Mr. Poroshenko faces up to 15 years in jail. Mr. Zelensky has insisted that the charges have nothing to do with politics, but they came at a time when Mr. Poroshenko, his main political rival, was gaining in the polls.
Ukraine’s judicial system has undergone extensive reforms over the past two decades, but it is still susceptible to political influence. The prosecutor-general and top judges are appointed by the President.
Mr. Poroshenko served as Ukraine’s president from the country’s pro-Western revolution in 2014 until 2019, when he was defeated by the upstart Mr. Zelensky, a former comedian who captured the country’s anti-establishment mood.
Mr. Zelensky, who hails from the largely Russian-speaking east of Ukraine, came to office promising to make peace with Russia.
Mr. Poroshenko, a chocolate tycoon who is one of the country’s richest people, was out of Ukraine when the charges were laid late last year. He is the preferred candidate of Ukrainian nationalists, many of whom believe Russia will never accept their country’s independence.
An estimated 130,000 Russian troops are now massed on three sides of Ukraine. Satellite images and other open-source information suggest the military buildup has continued through more than three weeks of high-level diplomacy aimed at persuading Russia’s President to back down.
Mr. Putin has demanded a guarantee that Ukraine – which was ruled from Moscow until the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union – will never join the NATO military bloc. U.S. President Joe Biden and other Western leaders have said that Moscow can not have a veto over who joins the Western alliance.
Mr. Poroshenko’s supporters gathered at Kyiv’s Boryspil airport ahead of his arrival. There was talk that allies of Mr. Poroshenko – who was a key player in Ukraine’s 2014 revolution – would move against Mr. Zelensky if the former president was jailed.
The crowd followed Mr. Poroshenko to the Pechersky Court in central Kyiv, and staged a vigil outside. Supporters told The Globe that they were ready to launch “another revolution” if the court ordered Mr. Poroshenko into custody.
After 12 hours of deliberations, the judge postponed the case for several days, then ruled that Mr. Poroshenko could remain free – though not allowed to leave the country – as he awaits trial. Mr. Poroshenko’s assets were frozen earlier in January.
Editor’s note: (Feb. 4, 2022): An earlier version of this article said that only the U.S. and U.K. have stepped up lethal arms shipments to Ukraine. This version has been clarified.
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