KIEV—Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko pronounced his English words clearly and carefully on Friday, addressing foreign participants at the Yalta European Strategy forum (YES), now an annual event her in Ukraine’s capital. Poroshenko’s voice sounded more self-confident than ever—and at times menacing—as he called Moscow an “aggressor,” blaming the Kremlin for creating “unlawfully stolen” territories in eastern Ukraine.
In a few days Poroshenko will go to New York to explain to the United Nations General Assembly what kind of peacekeeping mission Ukraine hopes to see in the war-torn Donbass territories along the Russian border.
Kiev wants to see the end of the disastrous war and welcomes U.N. peacekeepers, but only if Russian troops are excluded from the mission.
While in the States, Poroshenko also plans to secure a deal with President Donald Trump’s administration for lethal weapons, which Moscow claims will only worsen the conflict.
After three years of war since Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula—fighting that has taken more than 10,000 lives—Kiev and Moscow do not trust each other.
Poroshenko insisted that the Crimea issue should not be “frozen,” forgotten or accepted, and he wants "the aggressor to pay a high price."
On the wall behind Poroshenko as he spoke the forum’s slogan wondered: “Is This a New World? And What Does It Mean for Ukraine?"
“I would like to thank the United States for its leadership in strengthening the sanctions against the aggressor.” Poroshenko emphasized the word “aggressor” again.
Critics later said that Poroshenko’s speech sounded too militaristic and lacked arguments about domestic issues: the overwhelming corruption, injustice, and pressure on freedom of speech.
“In address last year to the YES forum the president said that our main and most dangerous enemy was corruption; this year there was no mention of the biggest domestic issues,” Hryhoriy Nemyria, chairman of the committee on human rights of the Ukrainian parliament, the Rada, pointed out in an interview with The Daily Beast.
The presidency clearly has been emotionally and physically stressful for the 51-year-old billionaire Poroshenko (a man who made his fortune making chocolate, but who suffers from diabetes). And it is a job that not many of the world’s politicians would envy. Back in 2014, a majority of Ukrainians believed that he would save their country. And although today Poroshenko’s popularity rating is notably weak at home, as an experienced diplomat and businessman with good negotiating skills he remains good at attracting the world’s attention and support.
Dozens of high-profile participants, including former United States Secretary of State John Kerry, former British Prime Minister David Cameron, and former Polish President Alexander Kwasniewski gathered at Kiev’s city market for the opening of YES forum this week, where the vendors in colorful embroidered national costumes offered participants delicious Ukrainian fruit, vegetables, drinks, and slabs of meat.
But after Poroshenko ended his speech on Friday, and questions came, he struggled to explain why the country’s efforts at reform were still far from successful. The president admitted that even after a year and a half Ukraine still does not have the Supreme Court.
Almost every day brings tragic news of more casualties in the eastern regions of the country. Ukraine often wakes up to corruption scandals or declarations of war by Poroshenko’s opposition.
The latest ordeal involved Poroshenko’s former friend and now a key opponent, Mikheil Saakashvili, the former Georgian president who took Ukrainian citizenship to be governor or Odessa, only to be stripped of his Ukrainian nationality last month. So last week Saakashvili and his supporters forced their way back into Ukraine, crossing illegally the western part of the state border and promising to end Poroshenko’s “oligarchy.” This while Russia-backed rebels control the eastern border.
“Poroshenko likes to control everything, as a commander-in-chief, as a prosecutor general, foreign minister, the court and police; at times his rule might seem authoritarian,” Kiev-based television journalist Yevgeny Kiselev told The Daily Beast. “Poroshenko takes things deeply and personally, for example when he deprived Saakashvili of Ukrainian citizenship many said that it was the president’s personal punishment of his opponent.”
Several opposition leaders, parliament members, including one of the country's most popular politicians, Yulia Tymoshenko supported Saakashvili, and criticized Poroshenko. In response authorities began to investigate and detain Saakashvili’s supporters.
The international participants of this week’s YES forum insist the world wants to see a secure and economically strong Ukraine. Several key speakers from the European Union and the U.S. admitted that in the past the West had made mistakes by misreading Russia. They said now it is important to see peace in eastern Ukraine, and acknowledge that will happen only if Russia fulfills all the conditions of the existing ceasefire agreements originally signed in Minsk in 2014 and 2015.
On Monday Russian President Vladimir Putin told German Chancellor Angela Merkel that Moscow welcomed U.N. peacekeepers in all areas of Ukraine, observed by the OSCE, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. Bundestag officials told The Daily Beast earlier this week in Berlin that Putin’s decision was the first positive step to peace.
But in Kiev many wondered what sort of plan President Putin really has. At the forum, Former Secretary of State Kerry warned Ukraine: "You have to be really careful that [the Russian proposal] is not a trap,” Kerry said.
“If you've got this exclusively on the line of contact”—the war front—“then this can conceivably become the de facto recognition of this line of contact as meaning something. It has to be comprehensive throughout Donbass and particularly on the external border. We've got to test the legitimacy of this offer.”
Ukraine and its president face tests and traps on a daily basis but the world has not given up on this country on the eastern border of the European Union. The participants’ message to Kiev at the first day of YES forum could be put in one sentence: Ukraine, you have many issues, you fail in reforms, but we still stay in your camp, because we think Putin expects you to fall apart, and we’re not going to let that happen.
Just how much the Trump administration will back that point of view when Poroshenko visits the U.N., however, remains to be seen.