The False Promise of Petro Poroshenko

"The picture is more complex than the White House, the Congress and many pundits would lead us to believe."

The habit of inviting foreign dignitaries to address Joint Meetings of Congress is one of the more longstanding, as well as dubious, American political traditions. Since 1874, according to the Office of the House Historian, 110 foreign dignitaries or heads of state have addressed a Joint Meeting of Congress, the most recent being President Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine, who appeared on the House rostrum last Thursday.

In his address Mr. Poroshenko cautioned that “if [the Russians] are not stopped now, they will cross European borders and spread throughout the globe,” and that the conflict in Ukraine is one between “civilization and barbarism.” He added, “[T]he only thing that now stands between the reality of peaceful coexistence and the nightmare of the full relapse into the previous century, into a new Cold War, are Ukrainian soldiers.” Given their performance in recent weeks, let’s hope not.

In keeping with a time-honored American political tradition, Mr. Poroshenko made sure to make all the right noises about the sacrosanct quality of “democracy.” Ukraine, he told Congress, is at the “forefront of the global fight for democracy” and “democracies must support each other . . . otherwise they will be eliminated one by one.” Channeling his inner William Wallace, he declared that Ukrainians have “an unbreakable will to live free.”

Poroshenko was doubtlessly aware that rhetoric of this sort works wonders in helping to secure Congressional largess. Michigan Senator Carl Levin said the speech was a “real rousing call to us to be supportive of their dreams,” while Tennessee Senator Bob Corker declared it “a great speech” and found it “just embarrassing…the way our administration has responded to Ukraine.”

President Obama, meeting with Poroshenko in the Oval Office after the speech, assured him, “You have a strong friend not only in me personally, but I think, as you saw in Congress today, you have strong bipartisan support here in the United States.” The administration then pledged to provide Ukraine an additional $60 million in nonlethal aid. And not to be outdone, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee unanimously passed the Ukrainian Freedom Support Act which would designate Ukraine (and Georgia and Moldova) a “major non-NATO member ally,” impose further sanctions on Russia and provide $10 million over three years to assist Ukraine in countering Russian propaganda.

This sequence of events is simply part and parcel of foreign leaders appearing before Congress to profess their devotion to democratic ideals, and then fly home and wait for the American eleemosynary assistance to start rolling in.

You can hardly blame Poroshenko: it’s worked for Ukraine before. In 2005 President Viktor Yushchenko had his turn before a Joint Meeting of Congress, where he said, “The Orange Revolution provided evidence that Ukraine is an advanced European nation sharing the great values of Euro-Atlantic civilization.” Afterwards, North Dakota Senator John Thune said that Yushchenko’s speech was “an affirmation that freedom is on the march.” Meeting with Yushchenko at the White House, President George W. Bush said that Ukraine was “an example of democracy for people around the world.” Bush then sought an additional $60 million from Congress to help aid the cause of “reform” in Ukraine. Plus ca change, plus c'est la même chose.

Yet for all the fulsome talk, then and now, of the America and Ukraine’s common democratic values, Poroshenko’s claim that the fight between Ukraine and Russia is one between “civilization and barbarism” merits some scrutiny.

Nearly coinciding with Poroshenko’s visit to Washington, Amnesty International released a report documenting a number of atrocities committed by both the rebels and by forces in the employ of Kiev. According to the Amnesty report, Kiev’s far-right Aidar battalion has been responsible for “abductions, unlawful detention, ill-treatment, theft, extortion, and possible executions.” Reports have also surfaced that far-right militias, taking a page from the ISIL playbook, have started beheading captive rebels. Newsweek, citing Ukrainian news sources, recently reported that the head of one such unfortunate was returned to his mother in the mail.

In a sense, these battalions are taking their cue from Kiev’s political class, which routinely employs dehumanizing language to describe pro-Russian Ukrainians. A senior adviser to Poroshenko, Yuriy Lutsenko, has referred to the residents of Donetsk as “Kremlin-poisoned citizens” while former Ukrainian prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko expressed her desire to kill Russians living in Ukraine with nuclear weapons.

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