KYIV — Ukraine’s former president Petro Poroshenko returned to his home country Monday to face treason charges that he says are politically motivated — a standoff that observers say risks dangerously dividing Ukraine while Russian forces are massing on the border.
He appeared energized by the reception, launching into a lengthy speech that called for unity in the country amid growing tensions with Moscow, but he was also sharply critical of his political opponent, President Volodymyr Zelensky, who beat Poroshenko by a landslide in the 2019 elections.
“We are not here to protect Poroshenko, but to unite and protect Ukraine,” he said, referring to himself in the third person.
At the same time, Poroshenko listed the Zelensky administration’s alleged failures, including the decision to open a treason case against him — charges that he denies and instead accuses his opponents of committing.
“We will show that they are committing treason against the state, at the moment when Ukraine needs unity to strongly resist the actions of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin,” he said.
Poroshenko is under formal investigation after accusations that he facilitated coal purchases for government enterprises from mines under the control of Moscow-backed insurgents in eastern Ukraine.
The conflict in the east erupted in 2014, months after Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, and has killed close to 14,000 people. Ukrainian officials maintain that the coal purchases helped finance the militant forces.
Among Ukrainians, Poroshenko is sometimes called the “Chocolate King” because he is one of the country’s richest men from his confectionary business, Roshen. His fortune is estimated to be close to a billion dollars.
Authorities have frozen his assets as part of their investigation, and he could face a sentence of up to 15 years.
After returning Monday, Poroshenko appeared at a hearing in downtown Kyiv to decide whether he would be placed in custody while the investigation is ongoing. The hearing adjourned late Monday with no decision, and the ruling was postponed to Jan. 19.
His return comes at a particularly fraught time for the country. Moscow is demanding that the United States and NATO give Russia binding guarantees that the alliance will not move any farther east and will exclude former Soviet republics like Ukraine and Georgia from ever becoming members.
U.S. officials say that up to 175,000 Russian troops are being relocated to areas close to the Ukrainian border in a possible run-up to a major military escalation. Strategic talks this past week in Europe, aimed at defusing tensions and convincing the Kremlin to withdraw its forces, were unsuccessful.
As Poroshenko sat in his custody hearing — and hundreds of his supporters noisily gathered outside the courthouse — a bipartisan group of seven U.S. senators visiting Kyiv held a briefing in a hotel just a few hundred yards away and expressed worries about the unfolding drama.
“I’m speaking for myself — I certainly have concerns of selective justice and certainly have concerns about targeting of political opponents,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), adding it was up to Ukraine’s justice system to assure that the rule of law was upheld.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) warned of the potential destabilizing effect the case could have on the country which faced the “grave harm and peril that Vladimir Putin poses.”
“It is perhaps first and foremost with tanks, artillery and troops that may rumble down the highways of Ukraine,” Blumenthal said. “But equally so, [it’s] in the hybrid, twilight struggle of divide and conquer.”
The Biden administration warned on Friday that Moscow has sent operatives into eastern Ukraine for possible sabotage activities, to provide a pretext for an attack.
Unknown hackers also attacked Ukrainian government websites on Friday, rendering some of them temporarily inaccessible, which included a warning posted on some sites to “be afraid, and expect the worst.”
On Sunday, Ukraine’s Ministry of Digital Transformation posted a statement on its website, accusing Russia of being behind the attacks, which it said was part of a “hybrid war” against Ukraine.