Ukraine crisis: Hit Russia harder with sanctions and give us military aid, says leader

In his first interview since winning the election, Petro Poroshenko tells Jackson Diehl what he needs from the West

Petro Poroshenko, the newly elected President of Ukraine, inherits a low-grade civil war against separatists backed by Russia, an economy rapidly descending into recession and a fragmented political system in which most power lies with a lame-duck, unrepresentative parliament. But as he sees it, he does have one thing going for him: for the moment, at least, a decisive majority of Ukrainians are behind him.

“This is the first presidential election when all the regions of Ukraine had the same winner,” he says, in his first interview since winning a clear majority in a crowded first-round ballot. “You can consider it a referendum. Ninety-six per cent of Ukrainians voted for the unity of the country. Eighty-five per cent supported a candidate for European integration. So the President has a unique chance to unite the country and has a level of support which he never had before.”

Mr Poroshenko may be overstating his case. In two eastern Ukrainian provinces that lean towards Russia, most people were unable to vote because of disruption by the separatist militias that Moscow backs. But he did defeat candidates representing pro-Russian parties across the Russian-speaking regions – he even won a majority among the 6,000 people from occupied Crimea who managed to vote. The aggression of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin may have tipped a decisive majority of Ukrainians towards support for a unified country that seeks economic integration with the West.

If so, it will be a political tailwind that Mr Poroshenko badly needs. As President, the 48-year-old billionaire businessman, who made his fortune manufacturing chocolate, will have direct authority only over defence and foreign affairs. His first challenge will be to rebuild a demoralised and decrepit Ukrainian army on the fly while trying to eliminate the threat posed by the armed militants and Russian agents holding key infrastructure in the provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk.

 

For that, the new President thinks he will need more help than he has been getting from the United States. “I don’t have the impression that [sanctions] are strong enough. I think more aggression is possible,” he says. “And when aggression starts, no sanctions help.”

What would help, Mr Poroshenko says, is direct US military aid. He brought up Franklin Roosevelt’s Lend-Lease programme during the Second World War, paraphrasing Roosevelt’s argument as “when your neighbour’s house is burning, you should lend him your hose”.

“We should create a new security treaty exactly like Lend-Lease,” he said. “We should co-operate in military technical assistance and in advising assistance. We are ready to fight for independence, and we should build up Ukraine’s armed forces.”

Scores of rebel fighters have been killed this week around the major eastern city of Donetsk, and Ukrainian border guards have reported at least one gun battle as they blocked groups of armed men trying to cross into Ukraine from Russia. Ukraine and the West have accused Moscow of fomenting the unrest.

Nonetheless, Mr Poroshenko has made it clear he is ready to negotiate with Russia. “I know Putin quite well,” he said, adding that he is ready to compromise over everything but Ukraine’s claim to Crimea and its decision to pursue economic association with the European Union.

But Mr Putin’s bottom line is unclear. Even Stalin had a politburo, the President-elect privately complained to one adviser. Mr Poroshenko sees the Russian leader as opaque, improvisational and unpredictable.

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Tricky negotiations also loom at home. Mr Poroshenko must figure out how to manage Ukraine’s infamous oligarchs – the billionaires who feed off state contracts and subsidies and who were a prime target of the mass demonstrations that brought down the previous, hugely corrupt government. He himself has pledged to sell all but one of his businesses, a television network.

“What is the problem with the oligarchs?” he said, noting that he knew most of them well. “The real problem is corruption and the monopolisation of the Ukrainian economy. If you were to end the monopolies and have zero tolerance for corruption, they will just be big businessmen. Some of them can survive; I’m happy with that. Under those conditions, I don’t see any problem co-operating with them. If they want to be mayor of a province, no problem at all.”

Mr Poroshenko’s last big challenge will be to work with the shaky governing coalition in parliament, persuading it to pass painful austerity measures and a reform of the constitution – and to dissolve itself for new elections. On this last point he sounded strident: “This parliament is not representing anybody. If members of parliament appeared in their constituencies, 100 per cent would be beaten. It’s a big part of our problem in the east. These are the most hated people.”

The new President can afford such talk for now because he is the only Ukrainian leader with a post-revolution popular mandate. If the country is to survive Russian aggression and economic restructuring, he will need to widen that circle soon.

© The Washington Post

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