Another meeting with Petro Poroshenko at the presidential palace in Kiev — in the same office with the slightly kitschy decor in which he has received me on previous occasions.
He is under strain but unperturbed.
Wearing the same look of an alert fighter but this time with a gleam of confidence in his eyes that was not there when I saw him last in Paris.
He begins as Natalie Jaresko, his minister of finance, began with me the night before: by mentioning the press conference in which French president François Hollande appeared to be considering a softening of sanctions against Russia.
I explain that this is a misunderstanding, that what we are seeing here is a prime example of the art of Muscovite propaganda that was discussed earlier in the day (Sept. 12) at the Yalta European Strategy forum sponsored by the Pinchuk Foundation.
« Russian press services, » I say, « were the first to pick up Hollande’s words and set the tone by framing the statement as a victory. The French president meant exactly the opposite. If there’s pressure, it’s on Putin, not you. »
He cocks his head as if to indicate that he is not surprised, that he suspected as much. He has confidence in Hollande, confidence in the « Normandy Format » established 15 months ago on the D-Day beaches when France invited him — and the Russian president — to participate in ceremonies marking the defeat of Nazism. Some would like to change the format, widen it by including the Americans, for example, but he likes it the way it is. He likes the idea of the Franco-German unit, the engine of Europe and guarantor of Ukraine’s integrity.
« Watch out, though, » he continues, his expression hardening. « We haven’t heard the last from Russia. It’s true that the ceasefire is holding, and it’s indeed a wonderful thing to know when you get up in the morning that no brave Ukrainian soldier has died during the night. All the same … »
He goes still, reminding me of how Alija Izetbegovic looked in October 1993 when, his eyes bright with renewed pride, he announced to me Bosnia’s first victory over the Serbs.
« Do you know why and when Putin eased off? It was when he realized that we had succeeded over the past few months in building an army that was not only determined but strong, one of the strongest and most powerful on the continent. And the price was getting too high for him. »
An aide brings him a folder containing purchase orders for paramilitary equipment that he is financing from his personal fortune in order to save time. He signs the orders and turns back to me.
« Then there is the question of elections in November in the eastern provinces, » he says. « As you know, we are committed to holding those elections. And they will be a prelude to an unprecedented decentralization of power. »
« I know, » I say. « That was a courageous decision. And it’s rare, in the midst of a war, to forge ahead with a program of deep reforms. »
« Perhaps. But imagine if the separatists follow through on their pledge to organize fake elections a month earlier. That would be a violation of the Minsk accords, one just as serious as a resumption of military hostilities. And every one of the four members of the Normandy Format would be accountable. »
Seeing that I am taking notes, he elaborates.
« Starting with Putin, who can’t just shrug it off by saying, as he likes to do, hey, it’s not my fault. »
He said the last phrase in French, with a twinge of irony.
« And if that happens, Hollande and Merkel will have to come up with Plan B in a hurry. Because Minsk, don’t forget, is a package. And the idea of free, transparent elections held under Ukrainian law is part of what the four of us committed to. »
He breaks off to introduce me to Kostiantyn Yelisieiev, his new diplomatic adviser (fluent in French), who has brought him a dispatch and whom he invites to stay for the rest of the interview.
« That Plan B would mean new sanctions. An effective presence of the European Union in the zone of confrontation. And deliveries of defensive weapons — exclusively defensive — such as radar and communication equipment, electronics, and so on. I’m sorry, but there wouldn’t be any other solution. »
He gets up and parts one of the curtains that divides his office from the courtyard, as if to see if night has fallen. When he returns to his desk, he is smiling.
« Anyway, I’ll tell you, every cloud has a silver lining. Our army, courageous as it has become, is still a 20th century force. At least Plan B would help it into the 21st century! »
We discuss the refugee crisis, which moves the Christian in him but which he seems to fear will soak up all of the world’s attention.
We talk about Greece. He finds it strange that Greece receives 20 times more aid than Ukraine while Ukraine is making 20 times more effort to bring itself into compliance with the standards of the European Union.
It is getting late. I tell him that I plan to travel to Uman the day after tomorrow to take part in the annual pilgrimage of tens of thousands of Jews from all over the world to the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, one of Judaism’s greatest thinkers.
« That’s good, » he murmurs. « Very good. » Before we say our goodbyes, his face takes on the same reflective expression that it had in Paris when he laid out his plan for the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the Babi Yar massacre, the symbol of the Holocaust by bullets that shook his country. « That is a beautiful ceremony, you’ll see — and it, too, is part of the new Ukraine. »
Translated by Steven B. Kennedy