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Poroshenko, ex-president, returns to Ukraine, shakes up politics

KYIV, Ukraine — Former Ukrainian president and leading opposition figure Petro O. Poroshenko returned to Kyiv on Monday, where he faced arrest on treason charges, adding internal political unrest to the growing threat of a Russian invasion.

Mr. Poroshenko ruled Ukraine from 2014 to 2019, when he was soundly beaten by his rival, Volodymyr Zelensky, the current president. Poroshenko’s return intensifies their long-running feud and draws attention to Ukraine’s turbulent domestic politics, which analysts and critics say is a perilous distraction as the Kremlin masses troops on its border .

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

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

He said it was a necessary compromise to avoid economic collapse and denied having personally benefited 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 Kyiv.

His hearing lasted all day and late into the night without it being decided whether he would be arrested, and the court finally said a decision would be made on Wednesday.

Mr. Zelensky, a former comedian, won a landslide victory over Mr. Poroshenko two years ago, portraying himself as a political outsider who would fight corruption and uproot the entrenched interests of Ukraine’s political class.

But Mr Zelensky’s popularity has since plummeted. Opinion polls today show only a slight advantage in a potential future election against Mr Poroshenko, who is now an MP in the European Solidarity party.

Mr Poroshenko retains a base of support in Ukrainian nationalist politics, particularly in western parts of the country, which want closer ties with Europe. He clashed with Mr Zelensky over the future of Ukraine and criticized him for what he claims is giving ground in peace talks with Russia to resolve the war in eastern Ukraine.

His appearance in the capital where he once ruled comes after a week of mostly futile negotiations between Russia and the West seeking a solution to tense disagreements over Eastern European security, which raised fears again that Russian President Vladimir V. Putin may soon order a military offensive.

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

“He wants to undermine stability in Ukraine,” Poroshenko said of Mr Putin. “He analyzes two versions: one version is military aggression across the Ukrainian-Russian or Ukrainian-Belarusian border. The second is simply to undermine the stability inside Ukraine, and in this way prevent Ukraine from our future membership in NATO and the EU”

In Kyiv, opinions differed on whether the threat of arrest was just another maneuver in Ukraine’s typically Byzantine politics, or something more ominous related to the Russian threat. Polls have consistently shown Mr. Zelensky and Mr. Poroshenko to be Ukraine’s most popular politicians.

Some analysts have suggested that Mr Zelensky could take advantage of the distraction of Russian military buildup on the Ukrainian border to ward off an opponent, or that he hoped to quell possible opposition protests if he was forced to make unpopular concessions in Moscow to avoid an invasion.

“Maybe he thinks that with forces on the border, Ukrainians won’t protest” against the opposition leader’s arrest, said Volodymyr Yermolenko, editor-in-chief of Ukraine World, a newspaper covering politics. If so, he said, it’s a risky move.

“With the situation on the border, when everyone is shouting, ‘There will be a war,’ it’s very strange,” Yermolenko said of the spectacle of Ukraine’s two leading politicians bickering despite the existential threat that weighs on their country. “It just seems ridiculous.”

Aides to Mr. Zelensky said the charges against Mr. Poroshenko were justified and that the courts had already issued arrest warrants for other defendants in the same case, including a prominent pro-Russian politician in Ukraine, Viktor Medvedchuk. They said the courts, not the government, decided the timing of a possible arrest and other actions, including the freezing of Mr Poroshenko’s assets earlier this month.

Mr Poroshenko offered no evidence of a Russian hand in the political unrest and described internal Ukrainian wrangling as the most likely cause of the legal pressures he has faced. But he added that Mr Zelensky could hope to win concessions from Russia by arresting a politician aligned with 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 a negotiation with Putin, as a precondition.”

After massing tens of thousands of troops on the Ukrainian border throughout the fall, Russia last month demanded that the United States and NATO withdraw their forces from Eastern European countries and ensure that Ukraine does not join the Western alliance.

Diplomatic talks last week with Russia ended without result, and Russian officials now say they are awaiting a written response to their requests from the United States.

As a contingency, should Western diplomacy fail, Ukraine has also quietly continued talks with Russia and offered a bilateral meeting between Mr. Zelensky and Mr. Putin. On Friday, Ukrainian presidential chief of staff Andriy Yermak suggested a three-way video conference with the Russian and Ukrainian leaders and President Biden.

The feud between the current and former president is seen as mostly personal rather than ideological. Mr. Zelensky, former officials said, was stung by Mr. Poroshenko’s attacks during the 2019 presidential campaign. Mr. Poroshenko’s government in 2017 also banned the airing of one of the TV shows Mr. Zelensky’s most popular comedies, as one of the actors was accused of supporting Russia’s annexation of Crimea, which would be a violation of Ukrainian law.

The feud between the two men continued throughout the fall and winter, even as Russian forces massed on the border.

“The Russian threat didn’t stop them,” said Orysia Lutsevych, Ukraine program manager at Chatham House in London.

One of the motivations for the arrest, she said, could be Mr Zelensky’s plan to seek a second term in 2024 after removing the country’s wealthy businessmen, known as the name of oligarchs. Mr. Poroshenko is the owner of a chocolate and confectionery business.

But the US government has warned of a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine within weeks or months. It’s a point made by Britain’s Ambassador to Ukraine, Melinda Simmons, who highlighted the inopportune timing of the row in a statement on Monday.

“All Ukrainian political leaders must unite against Russian aggression now,” she wrote. “So important right now to not lose sight of that.”

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Margarita W. Wilson

The author Margarita W. Wilson