I have not even sat down to my lunch with Petro Poroshenko and already I'm feeling outmanoeuvred.
We are walking through the grounds of his European Solidarity party headquarters, opposite Kyiv's gold-domed Pecherska Lavra monastery. Like everything else in Ukraine, it has shifted to a wartime footing, and is now a volunteer hub. It has a concrete block-and-sandbag checkpoint outside, and the unofficial wartime slogan, "Russian warship, go f*** yourself!", a reference to the Russian cruiser that Ukrainian forces sank last month – a boost to public morale in this brutal war.
Ukrainians had warned me that their opposition leader and Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s predecessor would try to charm me, take me by the arm (perhaps literally) and steamroller me with talking points. And indeed, before I can ask a question, he is leading me on a tour of the site, which shares space with a volunteer military battalion for which he is the main sponsor and whose volunteer kitchen will serve us lunch.
Poroshenko, founder of Ukraine's popular Roshen chocolate brand and one of its richest men, was elected in May 2014 as president a few months after the Maidan pro-European revolution. Vladimir Putin had responded to the uprising by annexing Crimea and fomenting separatist revolt in the Donbas region – what Ukrainians see as the beginning of a long war that culminated in this year's full-blown invasion.
Five years later he was humiliated by disillusioned voters in a landslide defeat at the hands of Zelenskiy, then little known outside Ukraine except as a comedian in a television show. But today, many do credit Poroshenko with having built up their military, which has proved its worth by forcing the Russians into a tactical retreat from northern Ukraine – and, as of this week, the second city of Kharkiv too.
Relations between the two politicians are clearly testy. As recently as December, my lunch guest accused his successor of doing too little to prepare for war. “Frankly speaking, they were not prepared for an attack from the Belarusian side, and that was a very bad surprise,” he says, as we walk through a warehouse filled with donations, from bulletproof vests and night-vision devices to sacks of sugar and flour.
Does he think Zelenskiy did too little to ready Ukraine for invasion? He sidesteps the question, saying he won’t comment on Zelenskiy’s actions during the war “because I think the unity of the country is a key asset we have, and this is how we surprise Putin”.
“The world before the 24th of February and the world after the 24th of February, this is completely different,” he says. “We united not around Zelenskiy or around Poroshenko. We united around Ukraine.”
Prior to entering politics, Poroshenko was one of Ukraine’s most prominent tycoons, with interests ranging from confectionery to media, agriculture and finance – an embodiment of the fortunes to be built by quick movers in the post-Soviet years. As chief executive of Ukrprominvest in the early 1990s, he began trading cocoa beans, then buying up state chocolate companies to form Roshen, prompting Forbes to dub him “the Willy Wonka of Ukraine” in a piece on the eve of the 2014 election.
The battle to contain the overweening power of the oligarchs has been a defining issue in Ukraine in the three decades since it pulled away from Russia. One of the questions often posed here is whether Poroshenko did enough in his time in office to rein in his fellow oligarch caste – although this has been pushed to the margins by the more pressing problems of the war.
According to the Ukrainian edition of Forbes, Poroshenko and his companies have contributed about $10 million to the war; Poroshenko tells me that he matches every hryvnia the public donate to the “Brothers in Arms” battalion he sponsors. Among other things, he is rumoured to have put some of his own money into bolstering Kyiv’s air defences – a crucial factor in protecting the capital’s government buildings and military assets – even before the invasion. He and his company have invested “a lot” in setting up an air defence system, he confirms, but will not give details.
By the time of Poroshenko's election, Putin had already annexed Crimea and the war in the Donbas was under way. In 2014 and 2015 Poroshenko signed German- and French-brokered agreements with Putin in Minsk that froze the conflict, though they did not stop the fighting. I ask whether it was a mistake to have negotiated with a man he now describes as a fascist.
“I think that what has happened was a very dangerous transformation of Putin over the last years,” he says, noting that he first met the Russian president in 2004.
‘Transformation’ in Putin
In 2005, soon after the Orange Revolution, he spent "maybe five or six hours" in Putin's office in an effort to mend Russian-Ukrainian relations. "I saw that the Orange Revolution was [a] very big and negative surprise [for Putin], and he didn't know what to do and how to act after [it]." But, he says, he observed a "transformation" in Putin after that, as was clear first at the Munich Security Conference in 2007 and then at the Bucharest Nato summit in 2008, which Poroshenko says was a "missed chance of the free world" to keep peace. "All the leaders of the western world favoured Putin, and all the leaders of the western world trusted Putin. They thought if they could reach agreement with Putin, that could save the world."
“Don’t trust Putin, he never keeps his word, never,” he says, by way of recommendations on how to deal with him. “He’s a pathological liar.” The Russian leader promised to implement a ceasefire and withdrawal of heavy armour and weapons from the Donbas, but this never happened, Poroshenko adds.
His second piece of advice: "Don't be afraid of Putin." If Nato had only delivered a membership action plan for Ukraine (and Georgia and Moldova too) in 2008, he says, by 2013 it would have had full membership. "I am confident that Crimea until now would be Ukrainian, we would not have war and the world would be significantly more stable."
The idea of Nato was “not very popular in Ukraine” to start, Poroshenko says, with just 16 per cent of Ukrainians supporting integration to Nato in 2013 right before he was elected president – but by the time he finished his term, 61 per cent did.
“And do you know who helped us to achieve this result? Putin . . . I think the reason was the crazy mentality of Putin.”
The Minsk agreements bought Ukraine time, including to build its army, by freezing the conflict with Russia. But the accords were never properly implemented, and in the hindsight brought by this year’s invasion are seen by Ukrainians to have been at best a stop-gap that failed to address its root causes or contain further Russian aggression. Does he, I ask, now regret signing them?
No, he says, paraphrasing the Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu: “The main achievement is to avoid war, not to win war.” And since Putin launched the invasion, “you don’t see any critics” of Minsk, he adds.
“I think this was a great diplomatic achievement. Having the Minsk agreement, we kept Russia away from our borders – not from our borders, but away from a full-sized war.”
I have asked Poroshenko to reflect on the legacy of his presidency – successes and failures. “Just to remind you that when I was elected as president, Crimea was already occupied in full, and Donbas was [partially] occupied,” he says. “And Ukraine as a country and me as a president didn’t have an armed forces at all.”
In 2014 Russia poured irregular troops and beamed propaganda into the Donbas, exposing what critics described then as a failing Ukrainian state, beset by corruption and weak institutions.
During the first 10 days of his presidency, Poroshenko points out, Ukraine managed to seize back some key towns. “Everything that we have now was created in the five years during my presidency, and I am very proud of it,” he says. He lists his achievements: the first was building up Ukraine’s armed forces – though in many Ukrainians’ telling, the push was in large part a bottom-up initiative, starting with volunteer fighters at the Maidan, then in the Donbas.
With co-operation from Nato countries – which has intensified since the invasion – Ukraine has indeed developed a military that has so far proved more flexible in its structure and effective on the battlefield than Putin’s Soviet-issue top-down army.
“It is like my child, and I am very proud,” he says. “Now the whole world can see, and the Ukrainian armed forces surprised the world.”
Second, Poroshenko says, his presidency “institutionalised the Ukrainian state” and promoted the Ukrainian language (not without controversy), switching off the Russian TV signal that was “poisoning Ukrainian society”. Third, he says, his presidency saw the creation of an independent autocephalous Ukrainian church; fourth, “significant progress” on European integration; and fifth, co-operation with Nato.
I try to ask a question, but Poroshenko is not done with his list.
“Number six is decentralisation,” he says. This seems a fair point: when reporting in the Donbas in 2014, I met many neglected residents who despised their government in faraway Kyiv and joined the separatists. This year, Ukrainians – including in the Russian-speaking east and south – have shown themselves more united behind their state than at any time since independence.
Now I get to ask my question: what do you regret? Poroshenko’s reply: “I could have done more.”
Ukrainians were disenchanted by the slow pace of reforms, the continued power of the oligarchs (including Poroshenko himself) and the deeply entrenched corruption that persisted in politics and business during his term. Although he handed over his business interests to a blind trust after becoming president, the 2016 Panama Papers disclosed that he had set up an offshore company to move his confectionery company to the British Virgin Islands in 2014. He denied any wrongdoing at the time and highlights the creation of an anti-corruption court – although it had a faltering progress in his time in office.
In 2019 he ran a nationalist re-election campaign under the slogan “Army! Language! Faith!” that flopped. Zelenskiy trounced Poroshenko, campaigning on a ticket of unity and throwing out the old order, and taking 73 per cent of the vote compared with 24 per cent for Poroshenko. I ask him why he thinks he lost.
“After five years of war, people wanted to have somebody who promised peace within two weeks, promised that we had ended the time of poor people, and that now it would be the time for rich people,” Poroshenko says. “They really liked to believe in tales.”
During Zelenskiy’s presidency, Poroshenko was charged with treason and financing terrorism for allegedly having been involved in the sale of coal to state companies by separatists in the Donbas – the very men his administration was fighting. A Kyiv court deemed the charges serious enough to freeze his assets in January as part of the investigation.
The case alarmed Ukraine’s western allies, who saw it as a sign of dangerous political division in Ukraine when it was becoming clearer that Putin was poised to invade. (Poroshenko has rejected the charges as unfounded, and the case as “politically motivated”.)
“I hate this idea! To attack Zelenskiy now,” Poroshenko says, when I ask about the two men’s differences. However, he adds: “Immediately when we finish the war, I am absolutely open to this.”
I point out that he can speak about Zelenskiy’s pre-invasion record without undermining the war effort. “Okay,” he says, and invites his aides to sit at our table, where two soldiers eating alongside us have finished and stood up.
“This is not a political fight,” Poroshenko goes on. “I really did my best to help the nation, to make the government more efficient. And I was not a politician, I was president of Ukraine, a state figure.”
I ask him about the corruption allegations that dogged his term in office. “I don’t know,” he says. “I am not interested in that.” By his own count, he has faced 130 criminal cases in matters ranging from the creation of the autocephalous church to the signing of the Minsk agreements. He says that no one found “any tiny evidence of wrongdoing”.
“I did my best to – sorry for the pathos – to make Ukraine stronger,” he says, “more comfortable, more democratic, more free.”
The day of the invasion, Poroshenko says, he met Zelenskiy in the president’s office and the two agreed to put their differences behind them. Poroshenko says he also proposed to the president that weapons stores be opened in Kyiv to the public – a scheme that was implemented in the capital and led to some 36,000 guns being distributed in the first days after the invasion. “We Ukrainians surprised the world,” he says. “Some Nato generals gave us 72 hours.”
While Ukraine has soldiers and volunteers, it doesn’t have enough weapons – though it has begun to produce its own cruise missiles and anti-ship Neptunes, Poroshenko says, which he notes proudly “did the miracle on the Russian cruiser Moskva”.
While remaining in Ukraine, Poroshenko has spoken to foreign leaders, including Boris Johnson (whom he describes as "a very good friend of mine"), lending his voice to calls for more weaponry and ammunition for troops, whose biggest risk is being outgunned in places such as the Donbas.
“Can you imagine that the future of the world now depends on 300 to 400 tanks, on 1,000 armoured personnel carriers, on 500 howitzer cannons and on 100 jet fighters? Or maybe 300 additional anti-aircraft missiles? That’s it.”
It’s hard to avoid the underlying theme of our conversation – forbidden topics or not – that surely Poroshenko aspires to run for higher office again? “Okay, I trust you and count on you,” he says. “I have a dream to be elected, this is true..” He pauses for dramatic effect “ . . . as a member of the European Parliament.”
Poroshenko's handlers had warned me that he must leave punctually at 1.20pm, but before that he has a few messages he wants to deliver. The first is directed at Germany: "Stop your programme of closing nuclear power stations," he says, referring to a key factor underlying Germany's dependence on Russian gas. "Suspend it for 10 years."
He also calls for sanctions against Russia’s oil tanker fleet and its clergy, including its leader Patriarch Kirill, who have supported the war: “We should introduce sanctions against the Russian Orthodox Church as a terrorist organisation.”
It is now 1:20pm. He has a meeting. Before he goes he signs a yellow-and-blue Ukrainian flag. He flourishes a felt-tip marker and signs the flag with the words: “Move forward to victory.”– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022