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Poroshenko, Former President, Return to Ukraine, Roiling Policy




KYIV, Ukraine Former Ukrainian President and a key opposition figure, Petro O. Poroshenko, returned to Kiev on Monday, where he faced possible arrest on charges of treason, adding to domestic political unrest in the growing threat of a Russian occupation.

Mr Poroshenko led Ukraine from 2014 to 2019, when he was completely defeated by his rival, Volodymyr Zelensky, the current president. Mr Poroshenko’s return escalates their long-running feud and focuses on Ukraine’s tough domestic policy, which analysts and critics say is a dangerous distraction as the Kremlin piles up troops on its border.

Since Mr. Zelensky took power, his government has questioned Mr Poroshenko as a witness in a number of criminal cases he claims are politically motivated. On Monday he said he was under investigation in more than 120 separate cases. Police over the past month have also searched the apartments of members of his political party.

Allegations of treason and support for terrorism stem from his policy as president of allowing the purchase of coal from mines in areas in eastern Ukraine held by Russian-backed separatists for use in factories in government-controlled territory.

He said it was a necessary compromise to avoid economic collapse and denied personally benefiting from any of the deals.

Mr Poroshenko left Ukraine last month, saying he had meetings elsewhere in Europe. Prosecutors say he left to avoid a court hearing. But he later announced he would return to Ukraine to face charges and arrived early Monday at Zhuliani airport in Kiev.

His hearing lasted all day and night without a verdict whether he would be arrested, and the court eventually said a verdict would come Wednesday.

Mr. Zelensky, a former comedian, scored an overwhelming victory over Mr. Poroshenko two years ago, competing as a foreigner in politics that would fight corruption and uproot the entrenched interests of the Ukrainian political class.

But Mr. Zelensky’s popularity has plummeted since then. Opinion polls today show only a slight advantage in the next possible election over Mr Poroshenko, who is now a member of Parliament in the European Solidarity party.

Mr Poroshenko maintains a foothold in Ukrainian nationalist politics, especially in the western regions of the country, which want closer ties with Europe. He clashed with Mr. Zelensky on the direction of Ukraine’s future and has criticized him for what he claims is paving the way in peace negotiations with Russia to resolve the war in eastern Ukraine.

His appearance in the capital where he once ruled comes after a week of largely futile negotiations between Russia and the West to seek a solution to tense Eastern European security disputes, leading to new fears that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia may soon order a military offensive.

In an interview before his return to Ukraine, Mr. Poroshenko said his arrest could help Mr. Zelensky to sideline a rival, but that political instability would play into Mr. Putin’s hands.

He wants to undermine stability in Ukraine, Mr Poroshenko told Mr Putin. He analyzes two versions: One version is a military aggression across the Ukrainian-Russian or Ukrainian-Belarusian border. The second is simply to undermine stability within Ukraine, and thus simply to prevent Ukraine from our future membership in NATO and the EU.

In Kiev, opinions changed whether the threat of an arrest was just another maneuver in the typical Byzantine policy of Ukraine in the country, or something more ominous in relation to the Russian threat. Surveys have consistently shown that Mr. Zelensky and Mr. Poroshenko are the most famous Ukrainian politicians.

Some analysts suggested that Mr. Zelensky could use the distraction of the Russian military uprising on the Ukrainian border to repel an opponent, or that he hoped to suppress possible opposition protests if forced to make unpopular concessions to Moscow to avert an invasion.

Maybe he thinks that with the forces on the border, Ukrainians will not protest against the arrest of the opposition leader, said Volodymyr Yermolenko, editor-in-chief of Ukraine World, a magazine covering politics. If so, he said, it is a dangerous move.

With the situation at the border, when everyone shouts, There will be a war, it is very strange, said Mr. Yermolenko on the spectacle of the quarrel of the two leading politicians in Ukraine, despite the existential threat to their country. It just looks ridiculous.

Assistants of Mr. Zelenskys have said the charges against Mr. Poroshenko are justified and that the courts have already issued arrest warrants for others accused in the same case, including a prominent pro-Russian politician in Ukraine, Viktor Medvedchuk. They said the courts, not the government, set the time for a possible arrest and other actions, including freezing Mr Poroshenko’s assets earlier this month.

Mr Poroshenko offered no evidence of a Russian hand in the political turmoil and described the Ukrainian internal strife as the most likely cause of the legal pressure he faced. But he said Mr Zelensky could hope to gain concessions from Russia by arresting a politician linked to the nationalist wing of Ukrainian politics.

“I am absolutely convinced that this is a very important gift for Putin,” Poroshenko said. Maybe with this gift he wanted to start negotiations with Putin, as a precondition.

After gathering tens of thousands of troops on the border with Ukraine over the autumn, Russia last month demanded that the United States and NATO withdraw their forces from countries in Eastern Europe and guarantee that Ukraine does not join the Western alliance.

Diplomatic talks with Russia last week ended inconclusively, and Russian officials now say they are awaiting a written response to their demands from the United States.

As an emergency, in case Western diplomacy fails, Ukraine has also quietly followed the talks with Russia and proposed a bilateral meeting between Mr. Zelensky and Mr. Putin. On Friday, the head of the Ukrainian presidential cabinet, Andriy Yermak, suggested a tripartite video conference with Russian and Ukrainian leaders and President Biden.

The dispute between the current and the previous president is seen mainly as personal and not ideological. Mr Zelensky, former officials have said, was hit by attacks by Mr Zelensky. Poroshenko during the presidential campaign in 2019. The government of Mr. accused of supporting the annexation of Crimea by Russia, which would be a violation of Ukrainian law.

The quarrel between the two men continued during the autumn and winter, even when Russian forces gathered at the border.

The Russian threat did not stop them, said Orysia Lutsevych, head of Ukraine’s Chatham House program in London.

One motive for the arrest, she said, could be Mr Zelenskys’ plans to run for a second term in 2024 with a record’s departure of the country’s wealthy businessmen, known as oligarchs, from politics. Mr Poroshenko owns a chocolate and candy company.

But the U.S. government has warned of a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine within weeks or months. It was a point hinted at by Britain’s ambassador to Ukraine, Melinda Simmons, who noted the inappropriate timing of the altercation in a statement Monday.

“All political leaders in Ukraine must unite against Russian aggression from now on,” she wrote. So important at the moment that we do not forget this.




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