On Tuesday, the press office of Ukraine’s State Investigation Bureau, a law-enforcement body whose remit specifically relates to the investigation of senior government officials, released a statement that it has opened a criminal case against former president Petro Poroshenko in relation to the Kerch Strait incident. On November 25th, three Ukrainian naval vessels carried out dangerous manoeuvres and attempted to enter Russian territorial waters in the Sea of Azov. The vessels were detained by the Russian Coast Guard and their crews arrested.
Incidentally, yesterday the Ukrainian Special Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office opened another criminal investigation against Poroshenko, in connection with the suspected embezzlement of $228 million from the state-owned Tsentrenergo electricity company, but that’s another opera. By Ukrainian standards, corruption cases such as the Tsentrenergo investigation are a banality. Let’s focus the Kerch Strait incident.
The attorney Andrei Portnov, on the basis of whose statements the treason-investigation against Poroshenko has been initiated, has said “Poroshenko’s actions (ordering the Ukrainian naval manoeuvres) were aimed at deliberately provoking the Russian Federation for retaliatory and easily foreseen aggressive actions in a tense situation, which caused losses in the inventory of the Ukrainian Navy….”
As serious as the loss of three naval vessels is, the issue of deliberate provocation is the crux of the matter. We should bear in mind that Poroshenko is being investigated under article 109 of the Ukrainian criminal code, titled “Actions Aimed at Violently Changing or Overthrowing the Constitutional Order or Seizing State Power.” Presumably, the logic of this move centres around the point that, having deliberately provoked the Kerch Strait incident, Poroshenko then used it as a pretext for the declaration of martial law at the end of November, and many suspected that he was attempting to manufacture some pretext for suspending the upcoming Ukrainian presidential election.
However, this is not simply a matter of an abjectly unpopular president desperately trying to cling to power, and abusing his office in that attempt. In the context of post-Maidan Ukraine, illegal usurpation of power could hardly be an issue. The real issue, and the real basis of Poroshenko’s alleged treason, is geo-political. We should remember that, in addition to serving as a pretext for the imposition of martial law, the Kerch Strait incident also eventually precipitated the NATO “Sea Shield 2019” naval exercises in the Black Sea last month.
In announcing those naval exercises on April 2nd, US Ambassador to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchison alluded specifically to the Kerch Strait incident – she said “We have been working on a package to present to the foreign ministers and it is a package with surveillance, with air surveillance, as well as more of the NATO country ships going into the Black Sea to assure that there is safe passage for Ukrainian vessels through the Kerch Strait, the Sea of Azov.”
So the Kerch Strait incident was devised to have a domestic political effect and a broader geo-strategic effect. It resulted in a more aggressive NATO posture in the Black Sea. It is difficult to avoid the suspicion that the internal logic of this treason-investigation being conducted against Poroshenko does not hinge on the point that he attempted to use the Kerch Strait incident to illegitimately stay in power, or that it resulted in the loss of three naval vessels, but hinges rather on the point that in provoking the Kerch Strait incident, Poroshenko was (either consciously or unconsciously, depending on how you assess his quotient of self-awareness or the clarity of his internal monologue) acting in the interests of another nation-state.
One of the reasons why Poroshenko lost the presidential election by such a landslide (73-27) was that Ukrainians are exhausted from decades of their country being simply an instrument of great power geo-politics, an object of other nations’ foreign policies. This has resulted in social and economic immiseration for ordinary Ukrainians. One of the bases of Poroshenko’s single-digit approval-ratings over the past 4 years was that he was quite evidently acting in the best interests of the United States, not of Ukraine.
Being realistic, it seems improbable that this investigation would eventually result in punitive action being taken against Poroshenko. Aside from Iceland, there are precious few nations on Earth where the illegal abuse of political power results in incarceration, and it would be a pretty funny joke if Ukraine suddenly became one of them.
However, from the perspective of an American vassal-state, especially one as geo-strategically important as Ukraine, this investigation is still quite unusual. Throughout his tenure, Poroshenko was a loyal servant of the Washington consensus. To this day, he still speaks better English than Ukrainian. Ukrainian is actually his third language.
But the world is full of politicians who act against their own nations’ best interests in service of the 900-lb gorillas in Washington and Davos. That is possible only insofar as there’s an unspoken agreement concerning impunity after they leave office – otherwise, still-living former heads of state from half the nations on Earth, my own included, would be defendants in treason-trials.
So in the political context of an American vassal-state, this investigation is unusual. It seems that the new president Volodymyr Zelensky doesn’t fully understand the unwritten rules. From Washington’s perspective, Zelensky’s team doesn’t seem to understand that, in a global context, initiating this criminal investigation sends out the wrong message. In that respect, this investigation, symbolic though it may be, might still potentially have geo-political implications.