As a former Ukrainian president and oligarch with a rich international address book, Petro Poroshenko is working overtime to convince the world not to abandon Ukraine. But as head of the opposition, he no longer hesitates to criticize his president. ‘The unity of our country is at stake.’
Officially, Petro Poroshenko (58) is in Brussels for a meeting of the parliamentary assembly of the NATO-Ukraine Council, of which he is a member of parliament. But when we meet him in the stately Stanhope Hotel in the European district, he tells us that he is mainly using his visit to our country to meet European leaders such as Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Vice-President Maros Sefcovic.
Born on September 25, 1965.
Was the fifth president of Ukraine from 2014 to 2019. Since losing the elections to Volodymyr Zelensky, he has been a member of parliament and opposition leader.
Before his political career, he was mainly known as an oligarch. As owner of the Roshen bakery group, he was called the chocolate king. Also owned the television channel Channel 5.
In 2015, his fortune was estimated at $980 million, making him the sixth richest citizen in Ukraine. When he entered politics, he transferred his interests to a foundation.
Was accused of corruption several times, but never convicted. He dismissed the accusations as political settlements.
The predecessor of current Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky came to power after the pro-Western revolution of 2014 and still enjoys respect in the West. He wants to play this out now that Western support for his country is under pressure. We spoke to him on Wednesday, a day before the European summit in Brussels, which is crucial for his country, because, among other things, a decision must be made on a support package of 50 billion euros for the next four years.
Poroshenko is in good spirits and makes almost twice as much time for the conversation as planned. He knows this interview will appear after the summit. “I bet that the support package will be approved without too many additional conditions,” he says. A day later it will appear that his optimism was well-founded, as European leaders quickly approved the package on Thursday.
Don’t forget our reality. I have to go to a funeral every week. Just yesterday I received the news that one of my political assistants had died after being injured at the front.
Former Ukrainian president
However, Poroshenko refuses to call that 50 billion euros aid. ‘That is not aid, but an investment by Europe in its own security. Without that money, Vladimir Putin would suddenly be a lot closer to your border, your capital and your homes. It’s just an effort to help us keep the entire continent safe. But don’t forget our reality. I have to go to a funeral every week. Just yesterday I received the news that one of my political assistants had died after being injured at the front. That is the price we pay every day. I would be the happiest person in the world if we could solve the conflict ourselves with money, and not with our lives.’
The main opponent of the aid package was Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Poroshenko knows him personally from when he was president himself. Did he try to convince him personally? “No,” says Poroshenko. ‘Because I don’t get the mandate for that from my government. European Council President Charles Michel travels to Budapest to convince him, French President Emmanuel Macron receives him at the Élysée and the other prime ministers also tried to persuade him, but we, as the party involved, do not speak to him directly.’
“Two months ago I was stopped at the border when I wanted to leave for Poland and the US to advocate the Ukrainian cause,” Poroshenko said. ‘The same thing happened before when I wanted to go to Budapest. Because some stupid useful idiot doesn’t think it’s a good idea for me, as a former president, to stand up for Ukraine. While in the US I had meetings planned with the top of the Pentagon, the State Department and top leaders in the Republican party.’
Poroshenko thus implies that it was President Zelensky himself who prevented his previous trips. The harsh action is remarkable, because since the outbreak of the war, political opponents have done everything they can to safeguard the unity of the country. ‘Division only benefits Putin. She will not help us convince the West to maintain support,” Poroshenko said.
He emphasizes that he has supported the president from the first hour of the war. ‘I went to his office at ten o’clock that morning to say that I was no longer the leader of the opposition, that I was no longer his opponent, because only Putin was. He then shook my hand. And because many people from the security services fled the city, I asked him for 8,000 Kalashnikovs to distribute to volunteers from my own party who wanted to protect the city. I asked for one for myself too, yes. I am still prepared to use that weapon if necessary to defend my country.’
I went to Zelensky’s office at ten o’clock the morning the war started to say that as leader of the opposition I was no longer his opponent.
Former Ukrainian president
But in recent weeks, cracks have appeared in Ukraine’s unity. On Monday, President Zelensky almost came to an open rift with Valery Zaluzhny, the popular army chief of staff. A dismissal was only avoided at the last minute, but the confrontation between the two threatens to escalate. It shows that there is trouble at the top of the country.
Poroshenko says he reacts reluctantly to that confrontation, but at the same time does not shy away from harsh words. “When I heard that the rumors about his resignation were true, I immediately called the president’s office to ask him to refrain from that decision and not be guided by emotions and jealousy.”
“You have the right to remove the Chief of Staff, Mr. President, but it is also a great responsibility,” I said. Because what does this country need to overcome? Unit. And that is not unity around Poroshenko, or unity around Zelensky, but unity around the armed forces of Ukraine. We should learn from Israel, where a national unity government was formed after the Hamas attacks. He took quick, and also unpopular, measures to safeguard the stability of the nation.’
The year of the drones
The two clash not only over the approach at the front, but also over the way the battle is presented to the outside world. When Zaluzhny admitted a few months ago in the British magazine The Economist that the battle had reached an impasse, it went against the strategy of the president, who wanted to continue to emphasize that Ukraine was winning, to boost the country’s courage. and convince the West that the aid helped.
‘I don’t call that communication. I call that propaganda,” Poroshenko said. ‘If people heard that the Russian army was strong, well-trained and dangerous – which is increasingly the case – they would want to mobilize. But why would they want to go to the front if they are constantly told that the Russians are stupid and have no weapons?’
I go to the front almost every week and I can tell you: this year it will be a different war.
Former Ukrainian president
That is why he radically chooses the general’s card. “He understands the situation better than all the presidential advisors and bloggers who keep up the propaganda about the positive situation on the front lines. He is right when he says that rather than focusing on an offensive operation, we should look at fortifications along the front line and laying minefields to defend ourselves. If we don’t do that, tens of thousands of Ukrainians will pay with their lives.’
With his private foundation, Poroshenko is one of the largest donors to the Ukrainian army, amounting to 112 million euros. ‘I go to the front almost every week and I can tell you: this year it will be a different war. 2024 will be all about drones: FPV drones (first person view drones, which are controlled with a camera to attack targets, ed.), kamikaze drones and unmanned ground vehicles. Russia now deploys ten times more of these aircraft. Ukraine cannot follow suit.’
“If we and our partners cannot arm ourselves against this, we will lose the war,” Poroshenko said. ‘That was also my question to our NATO partners. In addition to the promised ammunition, which we have been waiting for months, we urgently need state-of-the-art systems to defend ourselves against those drone attacks.’
A Russian at the door
Poroshenko is not blind to the fact that attention and support for Ukraine are in danger of slipping away. ‘But if Ukraine loses the war, it will open the door to World War III. It is cheaper for the West to stop the Russians in Ukraine itself. All we ask for is financial and material support, not manpower. If you don’t give us that, a Russian soldier will knock on your door tomorrow. Or better yet, he breaks down the door.’
NATO needs Ukraine, more than Ukraine needs NATO.
Former Ukrainian president
As a member of the parliamentary assembly of the NATO-Ukraine Council, he is doing everything he can to convince Western partners to speed up Ukraine’s NATO membership. Doesn’t he realize that the US will never allow a country at war to join NATO? ‘If Sweden and Finland join NATO, will that make Europe stronger or weaker? In fact, is the clear answer. That applies to us too. Ukraine now has one of the strongest armed forces on the continent, with a million soldiers with unique combat experience. NATO needs Ukraine, more than Ukraine needs NATO. Therefore, our ask is simple: give us the guarantee that Ukraine can become a member of NATO from the first day that there is peace in our country.”
It is important for Poroshenko that the West succeeds in maintaining unity. “That is an important message not only to Russia, but also to Belarus, North Korea and Iran.” That is why he is looking forward to the accession negotiations about future membership that the EU wants to start with Ukraine. ‘I hope to participate in the European elections in 2029. My hope is that we can become EU members by then.’
Allegations of corruption
The question is not only whether that timing is realistic, but also whether Poroshenko is the best ambassador. Although he has never been convicted, allegations of corruption have surfaced several times in the past. As a former oligarch, who at one point had an estimated fortune of $1 billion as the owner of, among other things, a food group and a television channel, Poroshenko, according to his opponents, still symbolizes the old Ukraine, where cronyism and self-interest prevented integration with the European Union. stand in the way of the Union.
I hope to participate in the European elections in 2029. My hope is that we can become EU members by then.
Former Ukrainian president
He reacts fiercely. ‘During the most recent presidential elections, Putin spread such rumors. During my six years as president, I pursued a zero-tolerance policy against corruption and a brilliant track record, including the establishment of an independent anti-corruption institute. Neither I nor anyone on my team was accused of anything during my presidency. I am well aware that corruption is a disastrous problem in our country, and that the fight against it is one of the most important tickets to EU membership.’