When Ukrainians took to the streets in the 2014 Maidan revolution, they ousted President Viktor Yanukovych and selected Petro Poroshenko as his successor to begin a period of reform. Poroshenko is up for reelection next spring, and polls show that Ukrainians are disappointed with him, particularly for what they see as his failure to clean up corruption. In a rare interview, Poroshenko discussed persistent Russian aggression, his wish for more international sanctions on Moscow and the Trump administration’s sale of weapons to his country, which the Obama administration had blocked. Edited excerpts follow.
Q: The latest Russian aggression appears to be in the Sea of Azov near Crimea. Are the Russians trying to slice off another part of Ukraine?
A: Russia’s purpose is to occupy the Azov Sea, the same way it did Crimea. This is a brutal violation of international law, and we cannot accept it. We are strengthening our military there and launching a case against Russia in the international Permanent Court of Arbitration. We have absolutely clear legal status in the Azov Sea. Russia has no right to attack or stop our vessels, which carry goods and passengers from two important Ukrainian ports, Mariupol and Berdyansk. If Russia does not stop, we have only one instrument, which is sanctions.
Q: You need more sanctions on Russia?
A: To halt the potential danger of the Russian occupation of Azov. If they block a vessel with Ukrainian iron and steel products from Mariupol for one day, the cost is thousands of dollars.
Q: So they’re damaging your economy?
A: Definitely. The iron and steel products from Mariupol provide about 25 percent of our export revenue. Then the Russians are attacking Ukrainian fishermen in Ukrainian waters all the time — the Russians arrest them, stop them and endanger them. This is part of the hybrid war against Ukraine that Russia has carried out since 2014: cyberattacks and military attacks that are prepared, trained and financed by Russia.
It is absolutely not true [as some people say] that sanctions are not effective. Sanctions stop Russia’s GDP growth, they stop the increase of Russian living standards, and they devalue the Russian currency. The Russian leadership pays a very high price for sanctions, which can keep Russia at the negotiating table and stop the aggression.
Q: Didn’t Ambassador Kurt Volker, the U.S. special representative for Ukraine, have talks last year with Russian officials about a potential withdrawal?
A: Ambassador Volker will organize the best compromise on a peacekeeping operation. The role of peacekeeping is very simple — to bring peace to Ukraine.
Q: You want U.N. peacekeepers in the east of your country?
A: Absolutely. A U.N. Security Council mandate should be on the whole territory occupied by Russia, including the uncontrolled part of the Ukrainian-Russian border, in order to stop the infiltration of Russian troops and tanks.
Q: Are mercenaries in the east of Ukraine fighting for Russia, or there just Russian troops?
A: These are thousands of regular Russian troops and thousands of mercenaries. Altogether, they have more than 40,000 troops.
Q: Are you happy with the arms that the Trump administration has sold you?
A: I’m happy with the support and the lethal weapons supply from the administration. But the bipartisan support of Congress is also extremely important. Ukraine has paid a high price for its freedom and democracy. This is a real hot war. My soldiers are under severe artillery and sniper attack.
Q: Analysts say the economy must grow at a higher rate. How will you bring this about?
A: I’ll try to give you a few figures. In the second quarter of 2018, we demonstrated economic growth of 3.6 percent. This is during a war.
Q: People say that growth should be at 8 percent.
A: In the years 2014 and 2015, inflation was 45 percent. Now, it is below 8 percent. This is, again, during a war. Now we have a stable currency. During the last year, we launched both education and health-care reforms. We also launched a pension reform which was extremely unpopular but absolutely necessary for the country. We increased the pension age [of eligibility] from 55 to 60 and then to 63. The more you work, the higher the pension. Beforehand, it was a socialist-style equality, which is not acceptable. We created the anti-corruption court. We launched a privatization reform, creating a transparent privatization process. Look, if anybody says they can do more in one year, I want to see it.
Also, in a week, our parliament will hopefully support a constitutional change initiated by me, which mentions that Ukraine has as the purpose of its foreign policy to become a full member of the European Union and of NATO.
Q: Not just associate membership?
A: Not just association, full membership. This is the guarantee for not returning back to Russia, not returning back to the Russian empire, not returning back to the status of a colony of Russia. We want to become a European nation.
Q: You think Vladimir Putin wants to return Ukraine to a Russian colony?
A: Definitely. Because the Russian empire is impossible without Ukraine. This is the key element of the legend Russia created: A thousand years ago, Kiev was the center of the Slavic culture. But now, can you imagine that [the overwhelming majority] of Ukrainians support European integration and 54 percent of Ukrainians now support NATO integration? Why? Because NATO has demonstrated it is the only instrument of security which is efficient in the world. The U.N. Security Council does not work when one nation abuses its veto right, whether it is regarding Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 or the illegal annexation of Crimea. This leaves Ukraine face to face with the second-biggest military machine in the world. Russia has no red lines in Ukraine, in Syria or in Libya. Who knows where they will appear next?
We have another topic — the independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church from Russia.
Q: I hear that you’re the architect of an imminent deal regarding the orthodox church.
A: I am proud of that. I hate the idea that the Ukrainian church is manipulated from Moscow.
Q: Has it been manipulated by Moscow?
A: Yes, because the formal patriarch of part of our church is Russian, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow. We hate to accept that. We asked the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, to give us independence. Shortly, we will have an independent Ukrainian church as part of an independent Ukraine. This will create a spiritual independence from Russia.
Q: Will Russia try to intervene in the upcoming presidential election set to take place in March?
A: We have evidence about Russia trying to intervene in the election process.
Q: If they did it in the U.S., you would think they’d try it here.
A: Definitely. I know that for sure. And the scale, the volume, the size of this intervention is much bigger than . . .
Q: Do you believe President Putin’s aim is to weaken Ukraine?
A: To undermine the stability and to change its course. Because they’re very much interested in the fight against corruption, the reform for privatization, the reform of the army, the reform of the judicial system — they are completely against those. They want to cancel them and return to the year 2014 when we had a disastrous situation.
Q: How do you feel about the next election?
A: I’m confident that everything will be okay.
Q: For you?
A : Including for me.
Q: Why do you have such low poll numbers?
A: I’m not analyzing the polls.
Q: What do you say to all the reformers who complain that more senior officials should have been arrested for corruption?
A: It is not the mission of the president to arrest people.
Q: But you must have heard this over and over.
A: I do my best to create the conditions for the independent anti-corruption institutions to arrest and put in prison corrupt persons.
Q: Experts say you created the anti-corruption court because the International Monetary Fund demanded it — and that the prosecutor is corrupt, so no cases make it to the courts.
A: I did not do this reform because of the IMF. I did this reform for my country. Today, 1.2 million Ukrainian public servants fill out an electronic [anti-corruption] declaration. We voted [into] law an anti-corruption infrastructure, and the director of the anti-corruption bureau and the anti-corruption prosecutor are completely independent, including from the president. They have launched cases against ministers, members of parliament and governors.
Q: So the allegations are not true?
A: I would prefer to have more court decisions — to put in prison anyone who is corrupt, no matter what position they hold. I promised that we should create an anti-corruption court by the end of the year, and we are finishing the competition for candidates for the new anti-corruption judges.
Q: Reformers complain that officials and others are taking money and enriching themselves.
A: Yes, this is the problem of the whole country.
Q: People blame you, of course.
A: This is the political situation. To combat corruption, I made sure that every single person who has the ability to spend state money must fill out an electronic declaration and explain to the whole world where [they’re getting the money to pay for] a villa or a car. A violation of this declaration is two years in prison.
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