Crisis in Ukraine

05.28.14.28.14

Can Ukraine’s New President Handle Putin?

When Petro Poroshenko talks, even the Kremlin listens. But it’s far from clear that Russia will put up with this billionaire known as The Chocolate King.

KIEV, Ukraine — This tormented country’s president-to-be was surrounded by glamorous women and giant works of contemporary art when he allowed himself a modest smile last weekend. The candy-making billionaire Petro Poroshenko, “The Chocolate King,” as he’s called, had spent weeks campaigning in almost every troubled corner of Ukraine. But now he was home at his party headquarters in a 200-year-old fortress turned art gallery called the Mystetskiy Arsenal. Ukraina mae prezidenta,” he said. Ukraine has a president. And there was the smile.

When Poroshenko was nominated by his Udar party in March, he was portrayed as the leader loyal to the heart and soul of the Maidan movement that had brought down the infamously corrupt President Viktor Yanukovych in February. The weak ad-hoc government that followed had watched helplessly as Russian President Vladimir Putin then staged the brutal annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula.

Yet there were hopes then, and there are still, that Poroshenko and Putin might find a way to talk peace. Putin has left that door open, by endorsing the presidential elections and withdrawing some of his troops from the Ukrainian border. Perhaps most importantly, he has made no move to support the ragged insurgents who’ve come under concerted attack by Kiev’s forces since Poroshenko won at the polls.

In the crowd at the Mystetskiy Arsenal, the gallery director, Natalia Zabolotna, watched the newly elected president with pride and a sense of accomplishment. Together with a majority of Ukrainian voters, Zabolotna believed that Poroshenko—“the biggest humanist, a man of his word,” as she called him—would stop the war, and what was even more important for post-revolutionary Ukraine, “never let Putin clean his feet on our dignity.”

The tests of that dignity are continuing as Kiev’s forces prepare to move into the center of Donetsk, the most important city in eastern Ukraine, where secessionists occupying government buildings have declared an independent Donetsk People’s Republic. On Tuesday, Moscow reiterated its willingness to meet Poroshenko for talks, but also called for restraint and the withdrawal of Kiev’s forces attacking the rebels.

Symbolically, perhaps, on the night before Election Day Zabolotna invited Poroshenko to watch a production of Hamlet put on by the Globe Theater, which was on tour in Kiev. The core line of the great soliloquy seemed to have a special resonance for a president whose country has to answer the question, “To be or not be.” 

Some two weeks before Poroshenko’s official inauguration, bad news is raining down on Kiev authorities. Even if Donetsk is retaken by Kiev’s troops, Ukrainian security forces will continue battling a guerilla war waged by “rebels” from many places, including what appear to be ruthless veterans from the wars to crush independence movements in the North Caucasus.

“Never let Putin clean his feet on our dignity.”

Why would the Kremlin embrace Poroshenko’s victory with one hand, and feed violence and atrocities with the other, if indeed that is what’s going on?

Igor Bunin of the Center for Political Technologies, a think tank in Moscow, told The Daily Beast on Tuesday that the Kremlin gave up on the previous designs to annex the southeast regions of Ukraine (Plan A); or make them independent from Kiev (Plan B). “Now,” says Bunin, “we see the realization of Plan C: turning the east of Ukraine into a region of chaos and lawlessness, so neither the European Union nor
NATO would dare to ever put their bases in that region.” It is this chaos by design that may become the biggest challenge for Poroshenko’s presidency, Bunin explains, “unless he finds a way to agree with the Kremlin.”

Poroshenko may find his old friends on the Maidan difficult to deal with as well. For now the protesters camping there say they are staying put to act as a kind of compass, sounding the alarm whenever Poroshenko veers off course. They want to see him bring real changes in the system, replacing all corrupt bureaucrats at all levels of power.

And even Poroshenko’s glamorous supporter and host for his headquarters, Zabolotna, reserved healthy skepticism. She has seen three presidents come and go in Ukraine since the end of the Soviet Union, three chapters of disappointments and two revolutions. “Time will tell whether this president fulfills our dreams,” she says, “or whether he gets the same disease as the three before him, which was blindness.”