Kiev, August 11, 2014
I had not seen Petro Poroshenko since his election.
He greeted me in a large, paneled room where the gold leaf had an oddly rosy tint. Ukrainian television cameras ran for the first few minutes of our interview.
The president brought up our initial encounter in the Maidan that Sunday in February, at a time when the fate of the revolution hung in the balance. We met by chance: We had adjacent slots in the schedule of speakers.
He mentioned the day, a few weeks later, when I invited him to come to Paris with Vitaly Klitschko and leaders of the Jewish community of Kiev to meet President François Hollande at the Elysée Palace.
He evoked his campaign rallies in Kirivi, Dnipropetrovsk, Dniprodzerjinsky, towns in the Russian-speaking east to which I accompanied him and where he offered me the privilege of opening his appearances by extending, in French, Europe's greeting to the assembled electorate.
And that brought us to my visit today, en route to Odessa, where I am about to give a reading of my play about Europe's fate, a reading in the magnificent setting of the National Opera of the role that I wrote for Jacques Weber, who premiered it in Sarajevo in June and who will play it in Paris this fall.
"Why Odessa?" the president asked me. Because of Isaac Babel and his red cavalry, I replied, and because of Sergei Eisenstein and the Potemkin Stairs, but above all because the play is also a tribute to the new Ukraine, and Odessa is a city in which people speak Russian but are first and foremost Ukrainian patriots.
Once the cameras were gone we got very quickly to the heart of the matter: the war, Poroshenko's war, the war, more precisely, that has been foisted on him by the separatist rabble outfitted by the Kremlin, a war that he is winning.
And from there we went to the heart of the heart: the four Mistral-class assault ships (not two, as widely reported) that France has sold to Russia, the delivery of which, the president said, aside from foolishly endangering the close relations that have developed between France and Ukraine, would be taken by Putin as a sign of encouragement that could not be more inopportune.
I replied that there were many in France who are of the same mind and who hope that we can find an honorable way of escaping this trap. (I suspect that President Hollande himself is one of those people.)
I told President Poroshenko that there were two possible outcomes, both of which I had reason to believe were under serious consideration. The first was a German idea that was presented to Hollande in Paris the day of the centenary of the assassination of Jean Jaurès, according to which the European Union would purchase the four ship contracts on behalf of one of its members or, even better, for the EU itself, thus providing an opportunity to christen the heretofore elusive "common defense." The second was an idea that I put forward whereby the EU would purchase the contracts, as under the first option, but for the benefit of Ukraine, which, thanks to a long-term loan on favorable terms, would at last see some evidence of the "European solidarity" that has been promised for so many months.
Petro Poroshenko listened.
Valeriy Chaly, his closest adviser, took notes.
The president responded that the idea was symbolically strong and would, of course, be welcome. But he added that his country's most urgent need was for the precision weapons of which France is one of the world's few suppliers, weapons that would enable Ukraine, first, to dissuade Putin from committing himself further to this criminal war; second, to deal once and for all with the terrorist militias of Donetsk while keeping civilians out of harm's way; and, third, to quickly establish the conditions for the peace that the vast majority of Ukrainians in fact seek.
At that moment, Petro Poroshenko no longer seemed to me to have much in common with the chocolate king I had met six months before.
Nor, for that matter, with the pious man that I glimpsed, one morning before a meeting, entering a little orthodox church in the neighborhood for a moment of meditation.
With massive shoulders, a head right off an ancient coin, and the wariness of a watchful animal, he resembles the young Tito as seen in the rare photos that survive of Tito's time in Paris, when he was recruiting for the International Brigades in Spain.
With his simple but implacable logic and a refreshing way of framing his choices in the obviousness of truth and justice, Poroshenko shares something with those resistance fighters whom Georges Canguilhem told us fought out of logic -- not because they liked it; not by temperament; but simply because, logically, there was no wiser position to take.
A reluctant war leader -- a sentinel for Europe, which he has come to believe in almost as much as he believes in Ukraine itself -- standing his ground against Putin when so many of his contemporaries prefer to lie low and seek accommodations, Petro Poroshenko is taking his place in that gallery of great figures who have always fascinated me, figures whose common characteristic is, at a given point in their life, to be seized by destiny, to hear within themselves the previously unheard voice, and to find the path to greatness.
Courage and dignity.
The nobility of politics when it dons the robe of history.
Strength in the service of reason -- and not the other way around.
Petro Poroshenko deserves the West's support. We should follow him on the course he has chosen, which is to resist the imperialism blowing in from the east.
Translated by Steven B. Kennedy