Former Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko returned to Kyiv on Monday and was sent to court to face controversial treason charges, a legal process that exacerbates Ukraine’s political divide at a time when the Russian military remains massed at the country’s border.
War fears continued to escalate, meanwhile, as new videos posted online appeared to show Russia accumulating more forces near its 2,000-kilometre-long frontier with Ukraine. Western and Ukrainian intelligence services estimate there are more than 100,000 Russian soldiers already within a short drive of the border, supported by large numbers of tanks, artillery and warplanes.
On Monday, trainloads of Russian troops and military equipment also began deploying in Belarus, which shares its own border with Ukraine. Alexander Lukashenko, the country’s Moscow-backed dictator, said the troops were arriving ahead of joint Russia-Belarus drills that would take place next month.
Tensions have been escalating since a series of meetings last week between Russian and Western officials ended without any agreement on Moscow’s key demand of a guarantee that Ukraine will never be allowed to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Monday that Moscow was expecting a written reply to its demands “within days.”
The proceedings against Mr. Poroshenko, the main rival of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, add to a swirling sense of crisis in Kyiv. Western diplomats have been trying to persuade Mr. Zelensky – who appointed the country’s prosecutor-general – to back off or at least delay the legal campaign against Mr. Poroshenko and to focus instead on unifying the country against the threat of Russian aggression.
Mr. Poroshenko was out of Ukraine when prosecutors announced last month that he was a suspect in a case involving his government’s purchase of coal from the part of the country’s Donbas region that is under the control of a Russian-backed militia. If convicted of the treason charge, which his supporters say is politically motivated, Mr. Poroshenko faces up to 15 years in prison.
Mr. Poroshenko’s European Solidarity party mobilized crowds to meet him both at Kyiv’s Zhulyany airport and the city’s Pechersk court, which was to decide Monday whether he would be taken into custody, assigned house arrest or freed on bail – with the prosecution requesting it be set at US$37-million. However, a 12-hour court hearing ended, unexpectedly, without a decision. The judge adjourned the case until Wednesday.
Viktor Medvedchuk, a politician and media magnate with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, has been under house arrest since May in connection with the same case. The prosecution alleges Mr. Medvedchuk orchestrated the illegal scheme to sell coal mined in separatist-controlled Donbas to Mr. Poroshenko’s government, and that the proceeds were used by the separatist regime.
Addressing the crowd outside the court, Mr. Poroshenko said Mr. Zelensky and his team were playing into Russia’s plans by prosecuting him.
“The enemy is at the gate, and the enemy is not only skilled at warfare but in proxy warfare, and tries to sow dissent among us, to disintegrate us from within – and these irresponsible authorities are helping the enemies,” Mr. Poroshenko said, addressing several hundred supporters.
“I came here to protect myself, but you stand here not to protect Poroshenko, but to protect a united Ukraine – because a united Ukraine is the only thing that can fight back against Russia and the old man in the Kremlin, Putin.”
Mr. Poroshenko, a chocolate tycoon and one of the country’s richest men, was a key player in Ukraine’s pro-Western revolution in 2014. He was elected president in the aftermath and led the country through the early days of Ukraine’s undeclared war with Russia, in which more than 14,000 people have been killed in the Donbas region over the past eight years.
He was defeated by a wide margin in 2019 by Mr. Zelensky, a comedian-turned-politician who vowed to make peace with Moscow but who now faces the threat of an even larger Russian invasion.
The date of Mr. Poroshenko’s return was chosen to coincide with the first anniversary of the arrest of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny, who has been jailed since his return to Moscow. Unlike Mr. Navalny, who was taken directly to prison, Mr. Poroshenko was allowed to travel on his own to the Pechersk court after landing in Kyiv on a plane from Warsaw.
Mr. Poroshenko’s supporters say the legal action against the former president reveals that Mr. Zelensky is more interested in fighting Mr. Poroshenko than Mr. Putin.
“If you listen to President Zelensky, there is no threat from Russia – only from president Poroshenko. We hear nothing about the Russian threat from Zelensky,” said Oleh Popovich, a 63-year-old retiree who stood outside the Pechersk court on Monday holding a Ukrainian flag. He said there would be “another revolution” if the court jailed Mr. Poroshenko.
“We’re here to protect democracy in this country,” said Olha Chizhova, a 39 year old who was serving tea to the other protesters. She accused Mr. Zelensky of trying to establish an authoritarian state in Ukraine akin to the one Mr. Putin has built in Russia.
Petro Burkovskyi, senior fellow at the Democratic Initiatives Foundation, a Kyiv-based think tank, said the charges against Mr. Poroshenko were laid at a time when the former president was gaining in the polls and support for Mr. Zelensky is sliding. He said the move against Mr. Poroshenko, who seemed to be politically finished after his election loss in 2019, could backfire on Mr. Zelensky.
“By acting against Poroshenko, Zelensky actually did him a favour,” Mr. Burkovskyi said. “People did not believe Poroshenko could recover so quickly from his defeats.”
Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly arrived in Kyiv on Monday and met with Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal and Deputy Prime Minister Olga Stefanishyna. She is due to meet Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba on Tuesday before visiting the 200 Canadian soldiers stationed in western Ukraine on a training mission that began shortly after Russia seized and annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014.
Canada is also sending a small contingent of special forces personnel to Ukraine to be part of an evacuation plan for diplomats in the event of a crisis, which is standard operating procedure, a senior government source told The Globe and Mail. That contingency force is typically made up of six to 12 personnel. The Globe is not identifying the source because they were not authorized to speak on the matter publicly.
Russian officials have complained about the Canadian, U.S. and British training missions in Ukraine, with Mr. Lavrov and others portraying the presence of the foreign troops as proof Ukraine is slowly being incorporated into NATO.
In a statement released ahead of her visit, Ms. Joly emphasized it was Russia that had created the crisis. “The amassing of Russian troops and equipment in and around Ukraine jeopardizes security in the entire region. These aggressive actions must be deterred. Canada will work with its international partners to uphold the rules-based international order and preserve the human rights and dignity of Ukrainians.”
With a report from Robert Fife in Ottawa