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Ukraine Leader Backs Controversial 'Russian Foreign Agents' Bill

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko addresses lawmakers in Ukraine's Parliament in Kyiv, Ukraine, Sept. 20, 2018.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on Thursday backed a controversial bill that would require pro-Russian groups to register as "foreign agents," borrowing from the playbook of his arch-enemy Vladimir Putin.

"We see how the fifth column is raising its head," the Ukrainian leader said during his annual address to parliament.

"A network of Russian agents is still active in Ukraine," said Poroshenko, claiming they were seeking to get local media under their control.

"They are independent of Ukraine but are controlled by the Kremlin and they are whipping up anti-Ukrainian, anti-European and anti-American sentiments."

He said ensuring Ukraine's "information security" was a top priority ahead of a presidential election next year.

"Thus I support the idea of a bill to register agents of influence of the aggressor country," he added.

The bill on "foreign agents" was proposed by one of the main factions in the governing coalition, the People's Front, which says the ex-Soviet country needs to protect itself from Russia's influence.

Poroshenko backed the legislation after the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union cautioned against it earlier this week, saying the bill would "create legal mechanisms to suppress public initiatives."

Ukrainians are scheduled to go to the polls to elect a president next March.

Poroshenko is widely expected to run but has not yet made an official announcement.

By proposing the controversial bill, Ukrainian authorities are following in the footsteps of their foe Russian President Putin, who has backed a law requiring Western-funded non-governmental groups and media to register as "foreign agents."

Putin has justified the need for such a law by saying that a Western-backed "fifth column" was bent on destroying Russia.

Ties between Kyiv and its former master Moscow were shredded after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and supported a separatist uprising in the east of Ukraine, a conflict that has claimed more than 10,000 lives.

Ukraine and its Western allies have accused Russia of funneling troops and arms across the border, but Moscow has denied the claims despite evidence to the contrary.