MOSCOW—After months of bubbling tensions and threats of all-out war, Ukraine has made the shock decision to grant one of President Vladimir Putin’s greatest wishes.
As far as overtures go, this was a grand gesture indeed.
Ukraine has charged former President Petro Poroshenko—who is described in Moscow as “Washington’s puppet”—with state treason and financing terrorism. The longtime enemy of Putin faces as much as 15 years in prison if convicted.
Even more delicious for Moscow, Poroshenko was charged over the same scandal that has already ensnared Putin’s ally Viktor Medvedchuk, which involved funneling public money to the Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine through illegal coal purchases.
Pro-Kremlin politicians have repeatedly insisted that it was Washington who gave President Vladimir Zelensky orders to arrest Putin’s ally Medvedchuk in May. “Washington wants to see Russians and Ukrainians kill each other. The pro-Moscow politician Medvedchuk is under house arrest in Kyiv, just as Washington told Zelensky to do,” Sergei Markov, co-chairman of the National Strategic Council of Russia, said in an interview for The Daily Beast. “Now Zelensky goes after the West’s beloved Poroshenko to show Washington he can make his own decisions.”
It was Poroshenko who brought American paratroopers to Ukraine in 2015 to train local soldiers, which included former Soviet officers. To Moscow, it sounded like the ultimate betrayal. Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev said at the time: “It provokes future escalation.”
Moscow sees the move against Poroshenko by Ukraine’s current leadership as a beneficial move. Markov was one of those pro-Kremlin experts who was pleased to hear about the investigation into Poroshenko, who he described as the “leader of the junta.”
Poroshenko, a wealthy businessman as well as a politician, was not at home when prosecutors showed up on his doorstep on Monday afternoon to formally charge him. The post-revolutionary leader was more than 600 miles away, taking part in an international conference in Warsaw.
The speculation about his fate in pro-Kremlin circles is intense, as people ask where the ex-president will land when the dust settles. Will Poroshenko return to Ukraine? Will he end up in jail?
In response, Poroshenko posted a video addressing Ukrainians on Facebook, promising to return home in January. That would mean he is going to miss his first appearance on the treason case, which is scheduled for Dec. 23.
“It makes the Kremlin happy to see any failures of democracy in Ukraine, especially political repressions or unjust persecutions of an ex-president,” said Stanislav Belkovsky, a Moscow-based expert on Ukraine affairs. “This scandal adds to Moscow’s argument: Look, things fall apart in Ukraine. Let’s annex territories in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions now.”
The idea of Russia moving on to recognize the independence or even annex the breakaway territories in eastern Ukraine is gaining traction in both Kyiv and Moscow—as a solution to the military escalation on the border between the neighboring countries.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu reported to Putin on Tuesday that U.S. mercenaries had intended to poison water in the Donetsk region. According to the Russian Defense Ministry, there are 120 American military contractors serving in Ukraine. “Moscow uses this serious accusation to prepare the ground for moving on and recognizing sovereignty or annexing the self-proclaimed republics in Ukraine,“ Belkovsky told The Daily Beast. “This is a story in the fashion of Stalin’s repression of Jewish doctors who the KGB [falsely] claimed were poisoning patients.”
Ever since the pro-Moscow President Victor Yanukovych was ousted from Ukraine, Moscow’s politicians, experts and propagandists have been constantly telling Russian television viewers about Ukraine’s fragile economy and political scandals.
Poroshenko is described as the leader of “the party of war.”
His party is popular among nationalistic patriots, but many experts in Ukraine remember his rule as utterly corrupt. “Poroshenko is a real crook, this is clear to everybody—he was making money on his chocolate factories in Russia and Crimea, while Ukrainian soldiers were dying on the frontlines,” said Yevgeny Kiselev, one of Russia’s most prominent broadcasters who moved to Ukraine after the Kremlin’s crackdown on independent journalism.
Throughout the seven-year military conflict between Kyiv and Moscow-backed militias in eastern Ukraine—which has cost around 13,000 lives—Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs and politicians have continued to make money from shadowy business deals.
Ukrainian authorities now accuse Poroshenko of being involved in one of these illegal schemes. They say he used public funds to buy coal from Russian-backed separatists despite a ban on any such transactions that would effectively fund the separatists. He is also accused of doing business with Russian public officials. “Poroshenko claimed there was a shortage of coal and organized supplies from occupied territories, which would help the self-proclaimed republics earn money,” Yulia Mendel, ex-press secretary of the current Ukrainian president, told The Daily Beast. “The payment was done in cash, which was brought to the occupied territories by the security services of Ukraine.”
Ukraine had already charged Medvedchuk, another oligarch, who is known for his close ties to Putin. Medvedchuk was placed under home arrest in May on charges of high treason, aiding terrorist organizations and trading coal with “occupied territories” controlled by Moscow-backed rebels. Now prosecutors charge Poroshenko with the same crimes, accusing him of giving Medvedchuk authority and therefore “financing terrorists.”
Poroshenko’s defense lawyer Ilya Novikov insists the case is “purely political,” that his client is innocent and will surely return to Ukraine. “When Zelensky was coming to power, he promised he would go after Poroshenko, his main political opponent. Since then Ukraine opened more than 100 criminal cases against Poroshenko but failed to prove his guilt in any of them,” Novikov told The Daily Beast in an interview Tuesday.
The threat of a destructive war is still hanging over Russia and Ukraine as tens of thousands of troops continue to mass on both sides of the border. Last week, Putin demanded NATO “accept the obligation to exclude further expansion of NATO to Ukraine” and to withdraw all NATO military bases and infrastructure from Eastern Europe built after 1997.
Markov suggested the noisy complaints are all part of Putin’s plan to seize more land in Ukraine.
“It’s possible that Putin will increase the tensions until the West will feel relieved to hear we recognize the sovereignty of Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics or make them a part of Russia, like we did with Crimea,” he said.
After the charges were leveled at Poroshenko, Olexandr Martynenko, director general of Interfax Ukraine, said Kyiv was trying to keep its options open. “There is not much hope left of a peace deal with Russia, but Kyiv is not burning bridges with Moscow either.”
Martynenko said there was a real chance that Putin would annex sections of Ukraine in 2022.
“It is quite possible that Russia will annex the separatist territories in Donbas and Luhansk next year in the same way they had done it with South Ossetia and Abkhazia, that is a natural solution for Russia in the current situation,” he said. “Ukraine will definitely protest against the annexation but both countries will eventually live on with the new political watershed. Once it happens, Russia will most probably bring in its peacekeepers, so all the fighting is going to stop. At least 50 percent of Ukrainians would feel relieved about the idea of no more war, relieved to see the end of at least this phase of tensions.”
Ukrainian officials fear that, ultimately, the West won’t do enough to stop Russian aggression.
“Putin knows there is weaknesses in the unity in Europe and in the United States—we already hear cynical voices on the West calling to give Putin what he wants,” Svitlana Zalishchuk, foreign affairs adviser for Ukraine’s state energy firm Naftogaz, told The Daily Beast.
Ukraine knows it may have to look after itself, whoever that means sacrificing.