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Former Ukrainian president and leader of the European Solidarity party Petro Poroshenko speaks at the party's headquarters after Ukraine's parliamentary election on July 21, 2019, in Kyev.SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images

Ukrainian authorities have placed former president Petro Poroshenko under formal investigation for high treason, accusing him of financial links to the Russian-backed militia that controls the country’s breakaway Donbas region.

In an announcement posted to its website Monday, the State Bureau of Investigation said Mr. Poroshenko was accused of treason and of “facilitating the activities of a terrorist organization.” The Ukrainian government says the forces that control the cities of Donetsk and Lugansk are “terrorists.”

The case involves the sale of about $71-million worth of coal that was allegedly purchased by Mr. Poroshenko’s government from the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Lugansk People’s Republic, the self-declared authorities in Donbas. Backed by Moscow, the DPR and LPR declared independence from Kyiv in 2014, igniting a war that has killed more than 13,000 people.

The State Bureau of Investigation said Mr. Poroshenko “is suspected of facilitating the activities of the terrorist organizations LPR and DPR by acting with the prior conspiracy of a group of individuals, including representatives of the top leadership of the Russian Federation.”

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The allegations, which come amid the threat of a wider Russian invasion of Ukraine, were immediately dismissed by Mr. Poroshenko’s allies as a trumped-up attack on the main political rival of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Investigators said the accusations against Mr. Poroshenko were linked to charges laid earlier this year against Vladimir Demchishin, who served as the minister of energy and coal industry under Mr. Poroshenko from 2014 to 2016, and Viktor Medvedchuk, a Ukrainian businessman and politician who is known to be a friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Mr. Medvedchuk, who has been under house arrest for more than six months, is accused of scuppering the Ukrainian government’s efforts to buy coal from South Africa in 2014 and orchestrating an illegal scheme that instead supplied state-owned industries with coal from the Donbas conflict zone.

The allegations are heavy with political overtones. Mr. Poroshenko is expected to run again for the presidency in 2024. Mr. Medvedchuk, meanwhile, was one of the leaders of a pro-Russian opposition party that controls the second-largest bloc of seats in Ukraine’s parliament, behind Mr. Zelensky’s own movement.

“Whatever the legal underpinnings of the case are, the timing is very suspicious,” since Mr. Poroshenko had recently been gaining on Mr. Zelensky in opinion polls, said Peter Zalmayev, director of the Eurasia Democracy Institute, a Kyiv-based organization that promotes human rights and democracy in the former Soviet Union.

“Both sides accuse the other of working with the Russians. This [case] could be a way for Zelensky to get back at Poroshenko and his people for suggesting that he’s not patriotic enough.”

Mr. Poroshenko and Mr. Medvedchuk each face as much as 15 years in prison if convicted of high treason.

There is substantial precedent in Ukraine for prosecuting the country’s former leaders. In 2019, Moscow-backed Viktor Yanukovych was convicted in absentia of treason for his efforts to crush the 2014 revolution that brought Mr. Poroshenko to power. Mr. Yanukovych’s government also oversaw the jailing of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

The State Bureau of Investigation tried to serve Mr. Poroshenko with an in-person summons Friday in front of the parliament building. In a video posted on the bureau’s website, Mr. Poroshenko – a billionaire businessman who was defeated by Mr. Zelensky in a 2019 election – can be seen getting into a black Mercedes sedan that speeds away as the investigators approach.

Mr. Poroshenko’s European Solidarity party said he was out of the country Monday on an official trip to Poland and Turkey. Oleksander Turchynov, a senior party official, said in a statement that the investigation was part of a “systematic campaign” waged by Mr. Zelensky against Mr. Poroshenko, adding that the allegations would “turn into a farce just like all the previous ones.”

Mr. Zelensky told a hastily assembled news conference in Kyiv late last month that a coup d’état was being planned against him for Dec. 1. The date coincided with a planned protest in the capital by supporters of Mr. Poroshenko, several thousand of whom peacefully rallied to denounce Mr. Zelensky, a TV comedian before he entered politics, as unfit to govern a country in crisis.

The main threat facing Ukraine remains the estimated 100,000 Russian soldiers massed on its border. In a formal document presented last week to U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration, Russia demanded a guarantee that Ukraine would never be admitted to NATO. Moscow also called for the military alliance’s Western members to withdraw all deployments from Eastern Europe.

Russia has warned that it could take further military action against Ukraine if its security concerns are not met. On Monday, deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov said NATO needed to “urgently” address Moscow’s demands “since the situation is very serious and may get more complicated.”

Mr. Zalmayev said Ukraine’s political crisis risks distracting the country at a dangerous time. “Rather than getting ready for a possible Russian onslaught – getting mobilized, getting united – we’re becoming an even more polarized society.”

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