Amid Putin’s Moves in Syria, Poroshenko Tries to Divert U.N. Attention Back to Ukraine

Addressing the U.N. on Tuesday, Poroshenko pulled no punches on Russian President Vladimir Putin.


Amid a protracted four-year civil war in Syria, advances by the Islamic State, and a major refugee crisis, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko came to New York for the 70th United Nations General Assembly to return his country’s standoff with Russia and Moscow-backed separatists to the international spotlight.

Addressing the U.N. on Tuesday, Poroshenko pulled no punches on Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea and its involvement in the conflict in eastern Ukraine amounted to Moscow financing “terrorists.” He also accused Russia of trying to rebuild its former empire along its borders.

“We are dealing here with a desire to return to the imperial times with spheres of influence, a desperate attempt to obtain self-affirmation at others’ expense,” Poroshenko said during his address to the General Assembly.

The annual U.N. gathering comes at a critical juncture for the Ukrainian government. In addition to the Minsk II peace proposal to calm fighting in eastern Ukraine, Kiev also faces an uphill battle to institute tough, and often unpopular, political reforms and to secure Western financial aid to prop up its ailing economy.

For the Ukrainian president, the summit in New York is an opportunity to find new ways to bring attention back to Kiev’s conflict with Russia, which has been gradually losing urgency amid a host of other crises in the Middle East and a shaky ceasefire in eastern Ukraine that has managed to hold since Sept. 1. Western diplomatic and financial support, largely from the United States and the European Union, has been crucial for Ukraine throughout the 17-month conflict, which has claimed nearly 8,000 lives and left the country’s economy on the brink of default.

“I can assure you that the government and the army are doing their best to hold the cease-fire,” Yarema Dukh, a spokesman for the presidential administration of Ukraine told Foreign Policy. “But we need constant pressure from the global community on our counterparts to make them behave according to the deal they signed.”

The broad strokes of the Minsk II peace agreement were agreed to by Russia, Ukraine, France, and Germany in February 2014, but implementing the deal has been a challenge and until September, fighting has continued. However, with a Dec. 31 deadline approaching, the pressure is mounting on Poroshenko and the stakes are rising.

On Aug. 31, Ukraine’s parliament passed the first stage of a bill giving more powers to the country’s regions, including the war-torn east, as part of the Minsk II deal. But the degree of autonomy granted to the separatist-held areas have been controversial, especially among Ukraine’s far right. Shortly after the August vote, a grenade was launched from a crowd of protesters towards police standing outside parliament in Kiev. The attack injured more than 100 and killed three.

Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine have also announced plans to organize local elections in October and November. Kiev has dismissed the planned vote and says elections can only be held in accordance with Ukrainian law. In an interview with the Washington Post on Monday, Poroshenko said the elections could kill the peace process and potentially restart fighting in eastern Ukraine.

Either offensive actions on the front or these elections [would be a red line],” Poroshenko told the Washington Post.

Meanwhile, fatigue with the slow pace of reforms in Kiev, economic ties with Russia, and concerns about war in Syria are beginning to see Ukraine slip down the priority list of global crises facing Western policy-makers. Speaking to reporters at a press conference at U.N. headquarters on Tuesday, Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó called for “pragmatic cooperation with Russia.”

“As far as I remember, during Iran talks, the Germans, the British, and French were sitting on the same side of the table as [Russian Foreign Minister] Sergei Lavrov. So I would like to advise Europe to stop being that hypocritical,” Szijjártó said. “It’s a very heavy burden on our shoulders what has been happening in Ukraine, because no one wants a war in the neighborhood; that’s why we urge all parties to implement the Minsk agreement.”

On Monday night, Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama had their first bilateral meeting since the Ukraine crisis began in March 2014. According to a senior White House official, the two presidents met for about 90 minutes and discussed both Ukraine and Syria.

“With respect to Ukraine, the president reiterated our support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Ukraine government,” the official said. “Mr. Obama also noted positive opportunity to implement the Minsk accord in the next few months.”

On Friday, Poroshenko and Putin, along with French President François Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, are scheduled to meet in Paris to discuss how to fully enact the Minsk agreement ahead of its deadline at the end of the year.

FP‘s Siobhán O’Grady contributed to this report. 

Photo credit: TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images

Reid Standish is an Alfa fellow and Foreign Policy’s special correspondent covering Russia and Eurasia. He was formerly an associate editor. Twitter: @reidstan

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