Zelenskyy’s advisor on talks with Russia and president’s ‘bad mood’ – interview

Advisor to the head of the OP Mykhailo Podolyak
Advisor to the head of the OP Mykhailo Podolyak

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy may not be in a good mood due to the events at the front and the current stage of the war, Mykhailo Podolyak, an advisor to the President’s Office, said in an interview with NV Radio on Nov. 1.

However, the advisor adds, the commander-in-chief is still firmly convinced that there are no grounds for negotiations with Russia today, while Ukraine’s victory is the only possible way to settle the conflict with Moscow.

In the interview, Podolyak shared the moods at Bankova [the street where the Presidential administration is located] and corruption, which turned into looting during the war.

NV: Journalist Simon Shuster’s Time magazine article includes quotes from unnamed aides allegedly of President Zelenskyy. Here’s the direct speech: “He deludes himself. We’re out of options. We’re not winning. But try telling him that.” And secondly, it is noted that one issue allegedly remains a taboo, namely the possibility of negotiating a peace deal with Russia. We may immediately get the impression that President Zelenskyy’s advisors or aides are forcing him to sign something with Russia. Please explain this situation to us. Is this really the case?

Podolyak: This is definitely not the case.

First, I’m not the person to ask about this, because I have two special attitudes. I believe that everything should be done under your own name. That is, if you explain something, say that you work, for example, in the president’s team, you must say everything under your own name. This is very important to be able to identify how verified this information is.

I don’t think anonymous sources are the level of journalism we need these days, especially given the times we live in.

Read also: Podolyak questions whether anonymous source in Time article was actually key Zelenskyy aide

And there is a second component. I look as hawkishly as possible at what needs to be done, I don’t see any compromise ending in this war, no matter how difficult it is. Because any compromise is just an operational pause for Russia. We’re aware that Russia, based on the hatred it harbors for Ukraine today, will have a third, fourth, and fifth stage of its attack on Ukraine. Until it finally destroys our statehood, gets a puppet space with a puppet government, or there will be nothing at all, but there will be a “Federal District of Ukraine” or “Malorossiya” [Little Russia], “Novorossiya” [New Russia], I don’t know what they will call it... That’s why we don’t have any [non-radical] option.

And here I absolutely support the president’s position: there are no grounds for negotiations today. Moreover, Russia doesn’t want to conduct any negotiations with Ukraine. Russia only wants the ultimate fulfillment of the capitulation demands that they put forward, i.e., that the territory remains.

By the way, let me remind you that Russia annexed [Ukrainian territories] in a fake referendum. For example, they amended their Constitution and [appropriated] in full, within the administrative boundaries, e.g., Zaporizhzhya Oblast. That is, you must understand that even if we stop today, find some kind of compromise, sign Minsk 3.0 [peace agreements], Russia will insist that we must hand over the entire Zaporizhzhya Oblast, including the city of Zaporizhzhya.

NV: And give them back Kherson.

Podolyak: We should understand that there is no reason at all to hold any negotiations or agree on something with Russia, which will definitely not fulfill these agreements. Because I emphasize once again there is already irrational hatred, and they’ll implement it one way or another through one or another attempt to attack Ukraine.

This may not just be a full-scale third stage invasion. It can be both large-scale terrorist activity and financing of some internal coups. It’s clear what technologies Russia uses.

And so, I move on to the second very important component. I don’t quite understand who could [do that]. And I know the moods in the President’s Office, and I understand absolutely exactly who is thinking about what and how. I just don’t know who in our country can even anonymously say that it’s an unrealistic scenario to end this war on Ukraine’s terms, that it’s necessary to agree to any Russia’s terms.

NV: But the journalist quoted someone. If he writes that this is one of the closest aides, he’s unlikely to be lying.

Podolyak: Maybe. I’m not ready to talk because it looks weird. For example, when I talk to journalists, you know the principle is simple. I always say: “Please, this is me, these are my quotes. Cite with reference to my name.” I almost never use such anonymous [message].

I conduct off-records [meetings with journalists without recording]. But journalists are directly involved in off-records, and we discuss the topics so that it’s clear that these are general topics, not for publication. But for sure, when a reporting-type publication is worked out, the quotes shouldn’t be anonymous.

And it seems to me, this is not an advisor close to the president, because there are definitely no such moods in the President’s Office. It can be someone self-styled who calls himself close to someone.

But I look at this article a little differently, I look at what was published in Time differently. First, it’s normal that there are various publications that give reason to discuss something. Because our situation isn’t ideal: it has been 20 months of war. This is a very difficult, I would even say, a depressive period. There are many doubts, there is apathy. And when the publication [deals with] negative elements, such as corruption, it’s normal because we talk about it publicly.

Read also: Low income, corruption, utilities, war-related demographic crisis among main challenges for Ukrainians – survey

But there are specifics: despite everything, including depression, apathy, etc., there is a president of the country who clearly adheres to his position, which is rather tough. This is not the position of 2014, not the position “we’re tired, no one is helping us, let’s somehow agree to terms.”

It is recorded that yes, the president may not be in a good mood today, based on the stage of the war we’re in and the events taking place on the front line. You see: a huge number of offensive operations, there are Russian counterattacks, Avdiivka, Kupyansk, etc.

And in the article, for example, it is said that we’re not very happy with the fact that our partners sometimes say one thing, and a certain time passes and only then we get the weapons that we needed a month or two ago. Yes, but these are situational points that only emphasize that we discuss them at different levels.

First, I saw a tough president of Ukraine. Secondly, I saw a tough position regarding the end of the war. This is very important, despite all the internal problems. Thirdly, I saw a willingness at various levels to talk and continue to talk with our partners that this war is very important in terms of what the world (primarily democratic) will look like after the right or wrong ending of this war.

And then we move on to the fourth: it’s necessary to maintain constant interest in the situation in Ukraine, despite, for example, what’s happening in the Middle East, on the African continent or anywhere. By the way, what Russia is interested in. And we’re trying to do that.

I saw it all.

In addition, I saw that there is an understanding of the problems Ukraine is facing today. The president has it. Which one? We need military production, it must be invested and scaled as quickly as possible, because this is a long war. And no matter what happens today, we have to plan three, six, eight months ahead. I mean not from the point of view of war as such, but from the point of view of future military production.

I’ve seen a lot of pretty good signals that there is a clear strategy for how we’re going to proceed in this war, how we’re going to go to the end, what we have to do, what problems we have along the way.

NV: But there is also a very unsympathetic side. The article ends with Ukraine’s problems with corruption. We know about them, but this is probably the last thing a reader who has read this article to the end will remember. The author notes that Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov was belatedly dismissed following journalistic investigations into possible corruption. This is a fly in the soup, with which Ukraine was perceived. What should we do to make sure we don’t have any complaints about it?

Podolyak: We’re not a soup, we’re a country that today has a heavy war and is paying a heavy price. And it’s absolutely right and fair that everyone says that if you want to help, you should be tougher on yourself.

Corruption is nonsense. It’s not even corruption anymore, but looting. Different schemes, different people, we constantly hear that someone has somehow become rich. At the same time, when other people are either at the front or give something within the volunteer movement, having much less opportunities for this than the state as such has in general.

And if we want to fight effectively, we must steal less and perform our functional duties more effectively.

Read also: Corruption in Ukraine unrelated to US aid — Ambassador Brink

As for whether someone should have been dismissed earlier, the question is... In retrospect, we can always say that it should have been done that way, and “it would have been much better.” I really like political campaigns that claim: “Well, if we were in this place, we would have done it like that.” But it is as it is, for 32 years.

We don’t have a military industrial complex, it didn’t exist. Unfortunately, we didn’t have an army that was being created since 2014. Today it’s much more effective. It seems to me that it’s in the TOP 5 in the ranking of the world’s armies, that’s for sure, and it will be in the TOP 3. But it all happens very hard.

How to prevent this? Three tools. First, not to be afraid to talk about it. Well, Mr. Shuster’s article ends on the corruption component, but we talk about it, dismiss people, the president makes appropriate decisions, brings certain initiatives to the meetings of the National Security and Defense Council. Again, the decisions are submitted to the parliament.

And here I move on to the second component: we need more effective law enforcement agencies. Let’s be honest, the judicial system. Not only specific anti-graft bodies, but also the judicial system. And it’s necessary to be tougher, at least during the war, on the economic actions that people do. If they’re involved in looting, they probably shouldn’t be released on bail, but immediately receive two months (and then with an extension) in a pretrial detention center, and there they should explain why they behave like that.

And the third component is zero tolerance. Although it sounds pathetic, zero tolerance in society, but it’s so. I always talk about it.

I emphasize once again: it’s necessary to clearly record certain manifestations of looting in public. It’s absolutely necessary to completely reform the judicial system so that there is no cronyism or nepotism, when people can be released for certain amounts, regardless of the amount they stole, by giving a third of this amount or 10%.

But there is also a third: it’s not just some abstract people taking bribes or abstract people building some schemes. Both relatives and friends are involved in these schemes, and they’re absolutely tolerant of it.

NV: The article mentions Rostyslav Shurma, deputy head of the President’s Office. Our colleagues from Bihus.Info [investigative journalism outlet] conducted an investigation. According to their information, Shurma’s brother can receive certain preferences from energy facilities that are currently located in the temporarily occupied territories. We understand an investigation should take place. But he’s not suspended even during this investigation. And it casts a shadow on the president, on his entourage, on Ukraine. How to solve this problem?

Read also: Deputy Head of President’s Office Shurma on systemic corruption — interview

Podolyak: A conflict of interest. It’s not only in Ukraine. A conflict of interest, as you rightly say, when there is some doubt as to whether someone affiliated with a particular official is receiving some kind of privilege is a conflict of interest. It exists both in our country and in other countries, in European countries, in the United States.

How to work with it? First, as far as I know, Shurma willingly goes to communicate with journalists and explains his position. This is already normal. That is, it’s possible to directly ask him [questions].

NV: Yes, we talked to him, he denies everything.

Podolyak: And that’s normal. It’s already good when an official is engaged, communicates, explains his position. You may not trust this position, but it’s good that the official communicates. This is one of the key rules of democracy.

That is, he doesn’t say this is all fiction, “I won’t talk to anyone.” He communicates. As far as I understand, he communicated with that Shuster.

Read also: EU advises Ukraine to strengthen combating corruption and arms smuggling

The second component. As far as I understand, we’re always attacked when something is related to the economy, they’re always looking for some personal things. Some competitive wars lead to the fact that there is kompromat everywhere. So, you’re absolutely right. An investigation should take place, at least a preliminary investigation. If there is any conflict of interest, a large-scale conflict of interest, it will probably be necessary to make some administrative decisions.

But in my opinion, ask Shurma questions. And it’s very good that he answers them.

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Read the original article on The New Voice of Ukraine