Ukraine ex-leader vows to return to fight ‘Russian aggression’

KIEV (AFP): Ukraine’s former leader Petro Poroshenko was expected Monday to return from Europe despite the risk of arrest, as he vowed to help protect the ex-Soviet country from a possible Russian invasion.

Poroshenko, who served as president between 2014 and 2019, was placed under investigation for high treason and left Ukraine in December.

He said he would come home on Monday, stressing Ukraine could be facing the “greatest” security risk in 30 years and adding he wanted to help the government of Volodymyr Zelensky despite their differences.

Tensions are at an all-time high between the West and Russia, which Ukraine accuses of having massed troops on its border ahead of a possible invasion.

On Friday, Washington accused Moscow of sending saboteurs trained in explosives to stage an incident that could be the pretext to invade the pro-Western neighbour.

“I return to Ukraine to fight for Ukraine, not to fight with Zelensky,” Poroshenko told reporters in Warsaw on Sunday.

He said in a video address posted on Facebook earlier that he wanted to come home to help the government protect his country “from Russian aggression”.

Poroshenko was set to fly back to Ukraine from Warsaw, and his plane was expected to touch down in Kyiv at 0710 GMT on Monday.

Speaking to reporters in Warsaw, he said he did not expect authorities to detain him. “I see no reason for that,” he said.

A court in Kyiv was to decide Monday whether to arrest Poroshenko, and the former leader said he would attend that hearing.

Poroshenko, 56, is one of the country’s richest men. He was elected president after Russia annexed the peninsula of Crimea and as fighting escalated between Kyiv troops and Moscow-backed separatists in the industrial east of the country.

In 2019, he was trounced in a presidential election by Zelensky, a comedian with no previous political experience at the time.

Poroshenko is now a member of parliament and leader of an opposition party, European Solidarity.

‘Ready to help’ 

By returning home, Poroshenko would be following in the footsteps of Georgia’s former president Mikheil Saakashvili and Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s top enemy Alexei Navalny who both came back home in defiance of the authorities and are now in jail.

Authorities say they are investigating dozens of alleged crimes in which Poroshenko might be involved.

He is suspected of aiding the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics in selling around 1.5 billion hryvnia ($54 million) worth of coal to Kyiv between 2014 and 2015.

He faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted in the treason case.

Poroshenko has denied any wrongdoing and accused Zelensky, 43, of orchestrating the charges in order to deflect attention from his domestic and foreign policy failures.

In his video address on Facebook, Poroshenko accused Zelensky of not doing enough to protect Ukraine from Russia and offered his help.

“We are ready to help the authorities. We are ready to share our thoughts and advice,” he said, adding his party would support “all initiatives aimed at strengthening the defence potential of our state and the European direction of our country.”

Ukraine has been fighting pro-Russian separatists in the eastern Donetsk and Lugansk regions since 2014, in a conflict that has claimed more than 13,000 lives.

Russia stands accused of having amassed about 100,000 troops close to the Ukrainian border in preparation for a possible new invasion as it seeks a commitment from the West that the pro-EU former Soviet state will never join NATO.

Ukraine was hit by a massive cyberattack in the early hours of Friday blamed by Kyiv on Russia and which some analysts feared could be the prelude to a physical attack. Microsoft warned Sunday that the hack could be far worse than first thought.

Poroshenko, often called Ukraine’s “chocolate king”, owns a confectionery empire and two television channels. Forbes magazine estimates his fortune to be worth $1.6 billion.