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As political turmoil intensifies in Ukraine, opposition leader is blocked from trip abroad

People's Deputy of Ukraine Petro Poroshenky (second from right) spoke with soldiers during military training at a base in Chernihiv region, Ukraine on Nov. 28.Mykola Lazarenko

KHERSON, Ukraine — As Ukraine steps up efforts to press for more military support for its conflict with Russia, political frictions have emerged at a critical moment for the country.

President Volodymyr Zelensky and the commander of Ukrainian forces, General Valery Zaluzhny, have been at odds. Vitali Klitschko, the popular mayor of Kyiv, Ukraine, has suggested that Zelensky made mistakes in failing to prepare for the war. And the opposition leader, Petro Poroshenko, was on Friday blocked by authorities from leaving for a trip abroad that he said was aimed at lobbying for more military support.

The political frictions in Ukraine come as the country enters its second winter of full-scale war with Russia and the public braces for more attacks on cities and infrastructure, while its troops face grinding fighting on three fronts.

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A summer counteroffensive failed to produce a hoped-for breakthrough against Russian defenses on the southeastern front, and while Ukrainian troops have gained some success in the south and against Russian naval forces in the Black Sea, they are suffering sustained attacks in the east.

Zelensky was scheduled to make a direct appeal to US senators Tuesday aimed at reminding them what is at stake if they fail to quickly approve emergency military aid for his nation but pulled out of the session unexpectedly. That warning came a day after White House officials said that the United States would soon run out of money to send weapons to Ukraine.

The Senate voted Wednesday night not to advance a $111 billion national security package that would have provided about $50 billion in emergency security assistance for Ukraine, a reflection of waning Republican support for funding Kyiv’s war effort.

As the military campaign has run into difficulties, criticism has started to rise within Ukraine’s political leadership. Zaluzhny, the commander of Ukrainian forces, wrote in a paper recently that the war was in a stalemate and would stay that way unless Ukraine received increased and more technologically sophisticated military equipment. Zelensky swiftly chastised the general and denied that the war was in a stalemate.

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Since then, rumors have abounded that Zaluzhny would be replaced. A member of parliament in Zelensky’s party, Mariana Bezuhla, who is a deputy chair of the Committee on National Security, Defense, and Intelligence in parliament, has criticized Zaluzhny repeatedly on Facebook for failures in planning, even running a poll asking people to vote on his replacement.

The attacks on Zaluzhny, who is enormously popular within the armed forces, have led others to criticize the government and Zelensky’s administration, with complaints that the president interferes with military decisions and fires commanders without consulting with his military chief.

Klitschko, the mayor of Kyiv and a former boxing champion, expressed support for Zaluzhny in an interview this weekend, saying the general was right to tell the truth about the situation. And the mayor took a side swipe at Zelensky, saying the president’s slide in opinion polls stemmed from mistakes he had made in failing to prepare for the war.

Both Klitschko and Poroshenko are political rivals of Zelensky but had largely buried their differences since the Russian invasion in February last year. But rivalries have emerged from time to time, such as when Zelensky criticized the mayor for not preparing air raid bunkers in the city sufficiently.

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Personal rivalry was most likely behind Poroshenko’s travel ban, one analyst said, but in the end, Poroshenko and Zelensky agreed on the need to fight Russia and build alliances with the West. “Their cooperation is inevitable,” said the analyst, Petro Burkovskiy, the executive director of a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank called the Democratic Initiatives Foundation.

“It was a surprise and shock for me when they tried to stop me,” Poroshenko said in an interview Monday, three days after he was prevented from leaving Ukraine on a scheduled trip to Poland, and then to the United States for what he said were meetings at Congress and the Pentagon.

But he urged in a video call that politicians stick together and cease personal attacks that created divisions at a critical time for Ukraine. “The first loser is Ukraine,” he said, “because we give additional fuel to the skeptics of Ukraine.”

Ukraine’s intelligence agency, the SBU, said Saturday that it had blocked the departure of Poroshenko, a former president who leads the opposition in Ukraine’s parliament, to prevent his trip from being used for propaganda purposes by Russia. The SBU said that Poroshenko had planned to meet with Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary, who, the secret service said, has close ties with Russia.

Poroshenko denied that he had planned to meet with Orban. He said he had written him a letter last month but had not arranged a meeting. Orban is the main obstacle to a package of European aid being considered for Ukraine.

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Poroshenko said his planned meetings in Poland and the United States were important for the country before critical decisions on support for Ukraine coming up in the United States and in Europe. “This is one of the most important 10 days in Ukrainian history,” he said.

Despite the turmoil, Oleksiy Haran, professor of comparative politics at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, said the politicking was a sign of a functioning democracy. “Ukraine remains a democracy even under martial law,” he said. “There are opposition channels. There is a lot of debate; it is very important to keep that in mind.”

He said the blocking of Poroshenko’s travel was a “mistake by the authorities.”

Yehor Cherniev, a member of parliament from Zelensky’s party, said Poroshenko would have another opportunity to travel.

And although Cherniev, a deputy chair of the Committee on National Security, Defense, and Intelligence, agreed that an end of Western assistance would spell disaster for Ukraine, he was dismissive that Poroshenko could influence the state of affairs. “He does know a lot of people, but there is no evidence that they listen to him,” he said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.