Forbes Ukraine published an interview with the head of the President's Office, Andriy Yermak, about Zelenskyi, war, weapons, lend-lease, sanctions, victory, personnel policy, oligarchs and the future of Ukraine.
Due to his great influence, Yermak was called the vice president even before the invasion, meaning that he was the second man in the country. It seems that during the 11 months of war, he strengthened his position.
THE ENTIRE PRESIDENTIAL COUNCIL
We are talking on the eve of Volodymyr Zelenskyi's 45th birthday. I would like to start the conversation with the following question: how did the war change the President?
It is both simple and difficult for me to answer this question. Speaking as a politician, the President certainly gained incredible and diverse experience during this terrible war. This experience made him more decisive, faster in making important decisions.
We see and hear today how he is received in the world, what all the world leaders say to him at the meeting. But it is very important that he does not consider himself a hero. The president is sure that he is just doing what he has to. What the whole world is talking about - that he stayed on the 24th and didn't go anywhere, or about his trips to the front and to the newly liberated cities - this is just normal behavior for him. He does not think that he is doing something incredible.
As a person, I think he has not changed. And Ukrainians appreciate this very much, as well as the fact that he is primarily concerned about people. For him, a person is a priority. This, by the way, is one of the reasons why today's war is global. Russia is our enemy not only because they attacked us, they are different in philosophy, in their attitude towards people. This is reflected in the way the Russians conduct wars: our losses are much smaller, and they do not count for human life at all. They don't even take away the dead bodies.
What does a typical day of Volodymyr Zelensky in the 11th month of the Great War consist of?
Sometimes it seems that this is one endless day that began on February 24.
Now a typical day starts either with a video of the selector, or a meeting with the military, security forces, the minister of foreign affairs, the prime minister about the current situation. Several times a week, this is the rate when the entire military leadership gathers. The state of affairs is analyzed, important decisions are made.
Then there may be 3-5 phone calls or international meetings, and on weekends too. We are talking to you on Saturday and today there was a call from the Prime Minister of Great Britain. This is a very important direction, now is a completely new stage of relations, and it is critical to support this positive dynamic. This applies both to the supply of weapons and the implementation of the Peace Formula, which Zelensky proposed in Bali during the G19 meeting.
The President meets with journalists, delivers speeches every day, and speaks on various international platforms almost every day. This is also Ukrainian know-how, these speeches from the first days became a powerful channel for informing the international community about Ukraine, about what is happening, about our struggle. It is an important factor that in Western countries everyone - from students to artists - supports Ukraine. The last performance was at the Golden Globe Awards in the USA.
These are very long working days.
If we talk about the Ukrainian circle of communication of the President, who does the President listen to besides you?
To many people, he knows how to listen. It is important for him that there is an exchange of ideas, a discussion. The President greatly appreciates extraordinary people who have unconventional, powerful ideas. Every day he communicates with dozens of people: from the military, politicians, members of the government and parliament to representatives of the creative industry, IT experts, artists. He has the talent to hear every thought and make a complete picture. Sometimes it's like managing an orchestra with a lot of difficult personalities, because most smart people with ideas are not easy.
It seems to me that this ability to listen and lead a discussion comes from a past life, when he worked with large groups of different people and had to very skillfully gather and motivate everyone to reach the desired result.
You said that the President likes unconventional ideas. Zelensky himself is described as a person who quite often issues non-standard and, at first glance, unrealistic ideas. The same application for candidacy for EU membership. Do you, as the President's manager, have the right to argue if you disagree with the President's idea?
I appreciate that the President will listen to my opinion. I am very sober about the opportunity to say something, and I believe that it is necessary not only to express my opinion, but also to support it with knowledge, experience and real results. This approach extends to the entire team of the Office of the President. For me, it is important that a person who expresses his opinion has confirmation of expertise, so that he speaks about what he knows.
The president is very open to other opinions, so sometimes the working meetings can last quite a long time, he wants to listen to many people.
Can you name three priorities of the President for 2023? Which one is the main one, I'm guessing is a win, and what are the other two?
It is difficult to single out three. You are certainly right that the #1 priority is our victory. And everything that will allow us to win on the battlefield: and the increase in military aid, and everything related to the provision of our military. This is a big block.
The second is keeping the Ukrainian agenda at the top of the world's attention. This includes the President's peace plan and the Peaceful Summit, and the UN resolution on the creation of an international tribunal and compensation for damages. In the same block, the consolidation of international forces and obtaining a result regarding Ukraine's membership in the European Union and NATO. On this track - obtaining security guarantees. You know that together with the former Secretary General of NATO, Mr. Rasmussen, we developed a very powerful document, the Kyiv Security Compact, we are working on it, it is on the table of all world leaders. This is Ukraine's strong participation in the G7 and G19.
We will also intensify our work with countries where we must honestly admit that we did not have the contacts and relations that we needed. I mean China, India, Latin American countries, Africa.
People are also a priority. And, accordingly, work on the return of all our children, from captives to deported children.
The absolute priority is the fight against Russia on all fronts, very diverse, from the exclusion of their athletes to competitions to economic sanctions.
Let's dwell on sanctions in a little more detail. Europe is preparing the tenth package, but the Russian economy is far from collapse. What sanctions do you, as the head of the Yermak-McFaul sanctions group, want to see in 2023?
You are right, the war is going on - Russia has money for the war, so the current sanctions are not enough. We plan to hold a sanctions summit in Ukraine. It will aim to review what has already been done and develop a strong sanctions plan.
We spoke with Mr. McFaul just yesterday. In my opinion, the nearest sanctions should affect the visa sphere. Ban on entry to civilized countries not only of politicians and propagandists, but also of all Russian military personnel and their family members. Secondary sanctions are very important, this especially applies to the military-industrial complex. The sanctions policy against Russian banks will be strengthened. We will also focus on sanctions in the IT sphere and the energy complex, although the latter is very difficult. There is a lot of work, we have more than 50 experts in our group today.
By the anniversary of the start of the invasion, there will be new packages from the Americans, British and Europeans.
WHY WILL THE WAR END
In this block, I want to talk with you about the most important topic for every Ukrainian - the war. Both you and the President have repeatedly said that 2023 is the year of Ukrainian victory. What is this belief based on, on what facts, figures, assumptions...
The first is history. We see a lot in common, unfortunately, with what happened during the Second World War. How events developed when it became clear who would win this war, but there were still years before its end. Unfortunately.
Secondly, the position of the civilized world. After a recent visit to the United States, I can say with 100% certainty: our partners are confident in our victory. This is no longer faith, this is confidence. From this comes the level of support, the level of what we receive. We will have everything we need to win.
The world realized very clearly what it was facing: this is a war of values, a war between the democratic world and the dictatorial world.
Ukraine has done an incredible thing with its struggle. The world has long lived in a sense of military parity between Russia and NATO, Russia and the USA. This is a stereotype supported by history. This caused a feeling of fear of Russia, and formed a corresponding policy - not to say something, not to do something, so as not to provoke Russia. With its struggle, Ukraine forever broke this stereotype, gave the world a chance not to be afraid anymore. Today, no one doubts that the most powerful military alliance is NATO. And Ukraine is currently the best image maker of NATO. I am sure that at the end of this journey we will definitely be members of this union, our membership in NATO will strengthen the alliance.
Thirdly, the Ukrainian spirit. Of course, it is very difficult to fight when the enemy has several times more people, equipment, and supplies. But people fight and the spirit wins. We fight on our land, protect them. We have a clear and understandable motivation. The invaders have no motivation. Today, Russian criminality is fighting in Soledar and Bakhmut. Russia has returned to threat squads killing retreatants, as was the case with the NKVD during World War II.
You can hear from competent military analysts that Ukraine is preparing a major counteroffensive in the spring, but there are no less authoritative opinions that Russia will launch a decisive offensive in a month or two. What is your personal forecast for the further development of military operations.
I will refrain from detailed comments. I will only say that we have our plans, and we are working non-stop to implement them.
You have repeatedly said that a component of Ukrainian victory is the liberation of all territories within the borders of 1991. Suppose the Armed Forces will do it this year. But will the war end there? Russia can stand close to Ukrainian borders for years and destroy our infrastructure. What will make Putin end the war?
Several factors: Ukraine's successes on the battlefield, powerful economic pressure and Russia's isolation on the international stage. This will cause processes inside Russia, more and more people will understand what the continuation of this war will cost their country and them personally. This is hard and, unfortunately, not a quick job.
Today, we see that a large part of Russian society supports the war. I think a significant number of Russians still live in the Soviet Union. They are brainwashed on television 24 hours a day, killing the illusion of the neo-Soviet union that Putin dreams of. But young people who have already traveled somewhere and seen the world will not be able to hammer into their heads that a scoop is the best future.
Many people support Putin, until they receive the funeral notice, the news about the death of their son, brother, husband. And this is gaining momentum. Hundreds of Russian soldiers die every day in Ukraine, and in some areas of the front, they litter the Ukrainian land with corpses. Now they do not tell the public how many Russians die in the war. But people will ask this question more and more often.
Plus the pressure of the civilized world. It is very important that everyone - from politicians to ordinary people - is on the side of Ukraine. Even cultural figures who studied and appreciated Russian culture say today that modern Russia is a country of murderers, rapists and perverts, and they have no place in the civilized world. There was a worldview rift. And it is only a matter of time before the rogue country loses. Unfortunately, Ukraine is paying the highest price for this time - people's lives. Therefore, the task of both the president and the entire government is to do everything to speed up our victory and minimize our losses.
Returning to military operations. The situation at the front largely depends on how our partners will give us weapons. For example, Zaluzhnyi's assessment: we need 300 tanks, 700 infantry fighting vehicles for a counteroffensive. Currently, Germany is dragging its feet with a decision regarding tanks, there is a public commitment from Poland and Britain, but these are dozens of tanks, not hundreds. And so with almost all the necessary weapons - less and later than we need. Among Western analysts, one can often find the opinion that the partner countries believe in and are bringing Ukraine's victory closer, but their No. 1 task is to prevent a third World War, a nuclear war. Do you agree that their approach is to boil the frog slowly with Putin and Russia in mind and give us limited weapons to prevent nuclear escalation?
I am very realistic about it. First of all, there was no such unity historically around any country. Secondly, what we have already received is unprecedented. We are grateful to our partners and treat them with great respect. It is also necessary to realize that behind every batch of weapons there is a huge amount of work, including that of the President's Office. Every week, we conduct briefings with the participation of the command for American and European partners. They clearly understand what we are doing and what we are planning, what we need today and what we need in the future, they feel part of this struggle. The president does a lot, he is the chief diplomat of our country today. Almost every performance opens up new opportunities.
Therefore, I would not say that there is someone who deliberately makes it happen slowly. But politics is a very pragmatic thing. At first, they watched how we would fight, and when they saw that we would not give up and could win, they believed in us and began to provide us with weapons. When they saw that it was not just defense, but that we began to liberate our land, they began to give more and more powerfully. The closer we are to victory, the more help we will receive.
Here I must say that if this President had been in 2014, when everything was just beginning and the little green men appeared in Crimea, I think that we would not have lost Crimea then. We would have started to fight even then, and we would have started to be helped even then. But it happened, as it happened. There will be time to ask all these questions.
If we end the supply of weapons, what about the American Lend-Lease, why did it never work?
It exists and it will definitely work, but lend-lease is not free help. Today, everything we receive, we receive as aid. We must not forget about the economy. Today is the eleventh month of the war, but the economy is working, the state pays pensions and wages. Massive missile strikes on the energy infrastructure did not stop us. Everything is repaired and restored. I will say frankly that there are very few countries in the world that would survive such a war for eleven months. This is another sign of our strength, why people believe in us, why they invest in us today and see us as the leader of the region in the future.
Can you name the terms when we will start using the lendlease mechanism?
As soon as we understand that we need it, it is justified, it will work. There are no fuses and no barriers to using it.
You and I are talking when there are bloody battles for Bakhmut and Soledar. In meaningful military publications, you can find arguments that these cities have no tactical and strategic value. That this is already a battle of two political ambitions, a struggle for symbols. If you ask directly, what is the role of the political leadership, namely Zelenskyi, in making military-tactical-strategic decisions. What does the General Staff agree with him, and what does not? Is the decision to protect Bakhmut and Soledar a political one, or is it a military-tactical one?
The President is thoroughly knowledgeable about everything related to war, including military operations. Therefore, his role is great. But the decision is made by the Supreme Commander-in-Chief, which meets several times a week. This is teamwork, where everyone's opinion is heard: Valery Zaluzhnyi, Oleksandr Syrskyi, Oleksandr Tarnavskyi, the head of the Security Service Malyuk, the head of intelligence Budanov, the head of the National Guard, General Lebed, the secretary of the NSDC, Danilov always speak in the team. This is a professional conversation and collegial decisions.
This is an answer to all those who continue to spread the Russian narrative that someone seems to have some kind of conflict with someone.
WHERE DOES THE OP END
Let's talk about domestic politics and the economy. And before the start of a full-scale war, the Office of the President was the main center of power in the country. During the war there was a natural consolidation of power around the office. But which range of domestic political issues do you personally control?
Today, for obvious reasons, there is no internal politics. There is one policy that is determined to win. I am certain that all those who today are exclusively engaged in domestic politics are people who do not act in the interests of our state. Our unity is our most powerful weapon.
As for my duties and my range of tasks. I am the president's manager, so everything that the president does, everything that he assigns to me, is my responsibility. Therefore, it is very difficult to outline them, it ranges from issues of security, international politics, to issues that may not be directly related to the Office of the President, such as deported children or the grain initiative, or working with the parliament on urgent draft laws and the continuation of reforms that are needed for European future. I think there is no other country in the world that continues to develop even during such a terrible war.
We are going to Europe, and for us it is an example of how powerful the institutions work there. Therefore, the priority is for our Ukrainian institutions to become strong and perfect.
Don't you think the concentration of power in OP is too great?
I am the president's manager, the Office is a structure that helps the president perform his functions. We do not take over functions performed by ministries and other relevant bodies. For example, the issue of the grain initiative is dealt with by the Ministry of Infrastructure, diplomacy by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Office performs only coordination functions. It is important for us to coordinate these directions and ensure the participation of the president where he is needed.
I think you are a bit shy. For example, you conducted the final stage of negotiations on the grain corridor in Istanbul. Let's talk about the grain initiative in more detail, it is a critically important direction for the Ukrainian economy. What are the chances that it will be possible to maintain or expand the scope of the agreement to other products?
I will respond to your phrase about shyness. I was brought up in such a way that it is easier for me to do than to talk about it. It is important to me that the results of my work are noted by the president, people from our team and Ukrainians. If people approve of what the president is doing, that's the highest praise for me.
As for the grain initiative. The Russians are doing a lot to complicate the process, but I think the corridor will work. Mr. Kubrakov and I are in constant contact with the UN Secretary General, Mr. Guterres, and the leadership of Turkey. Our goal is for the initiative to be extended indefinitely. It is very important that today, thanks to the Grain from Ukraine project, Ukraine has taken the lead in supplying grain to countries where people can, without exaggeration, die of hunger. Our partners from different continents supported this and we will do everything to make the initiative work.
Can you elaborate on the prospects for product group expansion and new routes?
This is currently being discussed, but in such matters, premature information can damage the negotiations. Let it happen, and then we will talk about it.
You are called not only the main manager, but also the main HR of the country. The office, if it does not appoint top officials, at least approves. Some of the recent appointments have quite outraged the public, I mean Ambassador of Bulgaria Olesya Ilashchuk or head of the Dovzhenko Center Yulia Kazhdan. Their experience, to put it mildly, does not correspond to the positions. Why are there such controversial appointments that, according to a number of mass media, were in the vertical of Bankova?
First, there is an exaggeration. We - the team of the President's Office - deal only with those personnel issues that belong to the competence of the President, and not as it is sometimes written. I am always in favor of constructive criticism, I accept it normally, but I am against manipulation and lies. And the president always reacts decisively to errors in personnel policy, if they occur. But it is very important that the conclusion about the error was made on the basis of a deep professional analysis. And not because of someone's political or personal interests. If this is indeed a mistake, then rest assured that the president will not hesitate to correct it. He is a decisive person and makes very strong decisions.
Regarding the appointments you mentioned. They are not fully the competence of the Office. As for ambassadors, there is a Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as for all cultural institutions, there is a Ministry of Culture. And I'm not stopping at these examples, I'm talking in general.
Finally, I want to say, let's draw conclusions about the destination also from the results. If someone makes an analysis of the most effective diplomats, where they worked, what their experience is, then there can be very interesting conclusions. For example, today one of our most effective diplomats is Mrs. Markarova, who has never worked at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Deoligarchization. What is the fate of the register of oligarchs, it was planned that it would be filled by the end of last year.
The plans of the President and our team regarding the fight against oligarchs have not changed. We believe that the oligarchic system is the cause of many problems in our country. And the destruction of this system is our goal. So that I am understood correctly - we support and cheer for Ukrainian big business, it is the property of the country. But when business groups seek political influence, buy deputies, political parties, influence the judicial system - this is evil.
The register will be mandatory, but today there are other priorities that have stricter time frames. I would like to add that the fight against oligarchs is very important for our strategic partners. They see that together with us they can achieve two historic victories in Ukraine: in the war with Russia and in the war with the oligarchic system.
Currently, Ukraine is actually a presidential-parliamentary republic. Shouldn't we bring the de jure and de facto situation to a single denominator after the war?
I will tell you honestly, today we are not thinking about anything except how to get closer to victory. We don't even have such thoughts. We will win and we will think about politics.
The world will never be the same as it was before this war. Ukraine will definitely be a leader in our region, a bright and respectable life awaits all Ukrainians in our beloved country. I am sure that our beloved country will be the best and most desirable country in the world. We all pay a heavy price for this together.