‘They don’t know Ukraine’ Zelensky advisor Mykhailo Podolyak on Kyiv’s ‘cautious optimism’ about the negotiations with Russia
After three weeks of all-out war, Ukrainian officials have begun to show “a degree of cautious optimism” about the talks underway with Russia. On March 16, Ukrainian presidential advisor Oleksiy Arestovych even suggested that Kyiv “should reach an agreement with Russia now or within a week or two.” In a special interview for Meduza, Kit journalist Elizaveta Antonova spoke with Mykhailo Podolyak — an advisor to President Volodymyr Zelensky’s chief of staff, who has been taking part in the negotiations. Here’s how he assessed the prospects of a peace deal.
Please note. The following interview has been edited and abridged for length and clarity. You can read the full Q&A in Russian here.
Why is the Ukrainian President’s Office “optimistic” about the negotiations?
The Russian Federation proceeded to wage this war on the basis of specific analysis. After fighting for 21 days, [Russia] is already assessing the damage that it’s inflicting, primarily on itself, in a different way. During this time, [the Russian leadership] has become much more realistic in assessing, among other things, their negotiating platform and those risks they will continue to face. This change in rhetoric and behavior causes us a degree of cautious optimism.
We really see a desire to reach some kind of compromise draft agreement — I’m not saying “peace agreement” yet. They certainly weren’t expecting the standing Russia has acquired in the world, the negative response, or the unified package [of sanctions] that has been imposed on them. All of this brings them back to real politics. Where Ukraine is right and makes completely reasonable demands: a ceasefire and for all [Russian] troops to withdraw to the positions they held before February 24. Then we can discuss certain things — including political and humanitarian [issues].
With the standing Russia now has, it’s no longer to discuss these things in terms of ultimatums. Whether we will [reach an agreement] in two days or in two weeks is a tactical question. But there’s an understanding on their side of the correctness of some of our logical arguments.
How has Russia adjusted its demands?
They’ve adjusted them on the whole. Even in public statements. You’ve [probably] noticed how the rhetoric of Russian political figures has changed. At first, they even publicly said, “We’ll bring everyone to their knees in two days, we’ll destroy the Nazis right now.” Of course, we were shocked by this, because it’s a completely distorted view of what was actually happening in Ukraine. These public statements in the first week and a half were some kind of hysterics. Now, we’re hearing much more moderate, restrained, and realistic [statements]. Their general approach has become much more down to earth, so to speak.
At the same time, in the space of 21 days, the invasion has made all of Ukraine totally anti-Russian. This will be a problem for us. If before 30 to 40 percent of the population had a rather neutral or even somewhat positive attitude towards the Russian Federation, and were prepared for some kind of dialogue, then after this “special operation” — that was thought up by very “talented” military leaders and analysts — 99 percent of Ukraine’s population has become totally anti-Russian. Now, of course, all of these humanitarian problems, language problems, and so forth, will be very difficult to discuss.
In general, this [all] looks very strange. The Russian Federation has invaded [Ukraine]. But there’s a paradox: they didn’t bomb Western Ukraine — the main devastating blows have been to cities in Eastern Ukraine, where, before February 24, there really were more or less pro-Russian sentiments. They carried out massive airstrikes on residential neighborhoods where the Russian-speaking population lives. Do you see the absurdity? “We’ll make you fall in love with the Russian language by bombing [you].” It just looks ridiculous.
Which demands has Russia rejected?
Mr. Medinsky [Vladimir Medinsky, Russia’s former Culture Minister and the head of the Russian delegation at the negotiations] has already announced some models. Although we agreed not to announce anything until we have 90 percent agreement on everything. But Russia, as always, is playing some games to its own detriment.
The main thing for us is that it’s fundamentally not just a peace agreement — this doesn’t suit us. And the old security system, where NATO played a dominant role, doesn’t suit us either. We were moving towards NATO, we were, in fact, their junior partner. During the war we needed advisory assistance — or at least the possibility of accelerated weapons purchases. Then, on February 25 [the day after Russia invaded], NATO didn’t even invite us to their summit. They were afraid. And [now] we understand that this entire post-war security architecture doesn’t work in Europe anymore. The OSCE [like NATO] is also failing to provide security.
We have a formula that we’ve put on the negotiating table — a Ukrainian model of security guarantees. It suggests that there will be no bilateral agreement between Russia and Ukraine, but rather a multilateral agreement, a package agreement that a number of countries will take part in — their number is still being discussed. [But it will be] five to seven countries.
How important is it for Kyiv that a future agreement on security guarantees for Ukraine involve nuclear powers like France, the UK, and the United States?
Very important. Unfortunately, today it’s impossible to predict how the Russian political elite are making decisions. So if Ukraine manages to form a new alliance, we want it to accurately respond to all modern risks. After all, we will be at its center as a country that has come under attack. We want our partner countries that sign this agreement with us to have the same capabilities as the Russian Federation. Both in terms of conventional and nuclear weapons.
In addition, we’re suggesting a Swiss model for the army, with a certain number of reserves that undergo continuous training. This is the best model for a country like Ukraine with a neutral status. The details are still being discussed.
Clearly this new alliance is impossible without the involvement of the United States, correct?
Of course. Consultations are underway with a number of countries, and President Zelensky is in constant communication with Joe Biden, among others. Some of our closest partners are really interested in this. I would very much like to note the efforts of Turkey, Poland, and Israel. Despite the fact that there’s a rather difficult situation in the region and that it [would be] very sensitive for Israel if Russia were to increase its support for Iran or Hamas, Israel is nevertheless taking on the role of an active mediator.
Against the backdrop of the war, Ukraine now understands how joint defense should work in such situations. I think that many will like it — and many will join this new type of alliance.
The Financial Times reported that Ukraine and Russia had drafted a 15-point peace plan that includes a ceasefire and the withdrawal of Russian troops, Ukraine declaring neutral status and reducing the size of its army, and Kyiv refusing to join NATO.
There aren’t 15 points. There are key, basic points: the end of the war, a ceasefire and the withdrawal of troops, security [guarantees] for Ukraine. Everything else is little extras. There are still territorial discussions, but they will be the subject of [separate] negotiations between the presidents, because these are painful issues.
As for refusing one thing or another — this is some very strange inside information, I don’t know where people get it.
What key aspects are non-negotiable for Ukraine?
The key aspects are a ceasefire, an immediate withdrawal of troops, and the signing of an agreement that has security guarantees — and where a number of countries will act as guarantors. Within the framework of this package, there will be an agreement with the Russian Federation that it also undertakes to guarantee Ukraine that there won’t be future wars. Russia has to understand the risks it will face next time. Without this, it makes no sense to end the war.
If we sign a bilateral agreement with Russia [then what]? After all, what’s the problem with the Russian Federation? Just a few days ago, Mr. Lavrov [Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov] said, in all seriousness, that “Russia never attacks anyone — and never attacked Ukraine either.” These people’s worldview is so warped. He’s on air on a European television channel and says, in all seriousness, “We aren’t attacking Ukraine.”
What we probably need is for people all over the world not to be afraid and to respond to this [and say]: “Mr. Lavrov, you are telling a lie. This means we shouldn’t have direct relations with you. You can’t come here even as foreign minister. Because you’re lying.” This would probably be an effective tool for returning the Russian elite to an honest position.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the topic of sanctions came up at the talks. The head of the Russian delegation, Vladimir Medinsky, also said this is one of the key topics of negotiations at each meeting. Is Moscow asking Kyiv for help lifting Western sanctions?
Moscow’s position is obvious. Undoubtedly, the sanctions packages imposed by European countries, the United States, and adhering states are extremely painful for Russia. I think that the sanctions policy is working brilliantly and really makes [them] think.
But there are two points here. First, Ukraine isn’t the one imposing the sanctions and so we can’t lift them. Second, the war is being broadcast live, there are thousands of foreign journalists working on it, drones are flying, everyone can see that Russian troops are killing civilians. It’s all being recorded. These are already proven, legally recorded crimes. I don’t understand why the world, seeing these crimes, would lift these sanctions.
The Russian Federation has to understand that you can’t simultaneously deploy soldiers who violate the rules of war and fight against civilians, and at the same time calmly demand that the sanctions be lifted tomorrow.
This is a difficult negotiation process. Of course, we’ll take part in it. These sanctions were imposed by the global community, not by Ukraine. In addition, lifting these sanctions should depend on specific actions: even if you withdraw troops, you’ve already destroyed a certain amount of infrastructure, let’s take this into account.
The Kremlin considers Crimea part of Russia, and now it also recognizes the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk “People’s Republics” as independent states. Is Kyiv prepared to make at least some concessions or compromises in this area?
This is the negotiating position they have requested. For us, Ukraine’s territorial integrity is inviolable. For us, these territories are de jure the ARK [the Autonomous Republic of Crimea] and the ORDLO [a Ukrainian abbreviation that stands for “certain areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions”]. We don’t know what “LDNR” [an abbreviation for the self-proclaimed “Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics”] is. For us, these territories are still legally part of Ukraine.
But we have temporarily lost effective control of [these territories], and they’re under Russian administration now. This is the status quo, I’m prepared to name it — but, I repeat once again, we can’t voice our positions in the negotiations as of yet. Unlike the Russians, we adhere to agreements.
What do you think about Medinsky as the key negotiator from Russia? Why, in your opinion, did Vladimir Putin choose him?
I’m definitely not ready to talk about the motivations behind the composition of the Russian delegation. But I can say that Mr. Medinsky is extremely constructive, he’s intellectual, and he evaluates [our] arguments, he listens to [our] arguments. Perhaps you’ve historically perceived him differently, as the culture minister — I’m not prepared to give an assessment here, this is your domestic politics. But in the negotiation process I would say he behaves emphatically correctly and properly. He understands [our] arguments — this is very important.
Medinsky said that the key issues for Russia are the status of Crimea and the Donbas, as well as “denazification.” What are your thoughts on this?
These issues can be discussed, they’re on the table, [but] not in this form, of course. The wording differs significantly. However, these are all the negotiating positions of the Russian Federation. Ukraine has its own point of view on all of these points. But these are very subtle matters, we’ll express our vision when the Ukrainian delegation believes that a compromised position has been reached.
Are the humanitarian corridors for evacuating civilians working now?
There’s a subgroup that deals with humanitarian corridors, there’s a subgroup of the Russian Federation [and] there’s the Red Cross, which acts as an intermediary. Some of the corridors are working, we’re taking people out of some places. And some of the corridors — for example, in Mariupol — are not working.
There must be some personal reasons for turning this city into ruins — into total ruins, like Aleppo — and driving people to madness. Probably, it’s some kind of tactical idea from the Russian Defense Ministry’s General Staff. What they’re doing there is beyond comprehension. They encircled the city, invented some story about Nazi battalions. And they’re bombing this city every day. Almost everything has been destroyed already, and people have no opportunity to get out.
Our Deputy Prime Minister [Iryna] Vereshchuk is working on the humanitarian corridors very intensively. And on prisoner exchanges, too. Because the number of captured Russian soldiers is also inconceivable. There’s more than 500–600 men. We also can’t give you the bodies of your soldiers, they’re lying in the fields, because the hostilities don’t stop.
The Russian Federation hardly has any concern for either the search for the dead, or the exchange of prisoners, or humanitarian corridors so that people don’t have problems with food, water, and medicines. This is very strange. After all, everything is being recorded. We really can’t understand it. Yes, it’s war, but aren’t there some rules?
Did you offer to exchange these 500 prisoners of war?
We’ve made constant offers within the framework of the working group to remove the bodies and do an all-for-all [prisoner] exchange. The Russian Federation is acting as it always does — it pretends to agree to something, and then it begins…
On March 16, Zelensky addressed the U.S. Congress and asked, among other things, for the establishment of a no-fly zone over Ukraine. Aren’t you afraid that this will provoke Russia to act more forcefully, including by using nuclear forces?
Of course it’s a bit of a fantastic story. We still think that we’ll reach a peace agreement, a package of solutions. Because the war is extremely destructive for Russia. And [it would be] a hundred times more destructive if tactical nuclear weapons were used. In principle, it would be desirable for European politicians to stop thinking that [the Russian Army] is such a big threat. May they make some responsible decisions.
Close the sky, let civilians stop dying, if there’s still war — okay, let there be war. At least it [would be] a war between armies. Let [Russia] prove that it knows how to fight, and not just how to bomb peaceful cities. That’s all we want. Close the sky — let the guys come down to earth at long last! That said, they’re very skillful at fighting with cruise missiles. They probably put a star on their shoulder boards for bombing Kharkiv’s city center.
Everyone who regularly watches Zelensky’s video messages pays attention to his appearance…Is he getting any sleep? And in general, how do you work in a city that’s under fire?
Mr. Zelensky allocates his time very carefully, he’s an extremely effective manager. He, simultaneously, effectively manages defense initiatives and the military economy, for example — and he’s already thinking about how to rebuild the country. He also spends part of time keeping himself in good shape. But we’re all getting little sleep. This is war. [We get] two, three, four hours. Our sirens are constantly going off in the city. We’re always in work mode because operational management in wartime is not quite the same as in peacetime. You can't exactly sit down in a restaurant with a cocktail. Our restaurants aren’t even open.
Finally, a question about Putin. Do you think the invasion of Ukraine was the result of his preoccupation with history?
To be honest, I’m not ready to analyze the motivations behind your leaders’ conduct. I understand that in Russia people often draw conclusions without knowing the facts. But I don’t know what [information] they relied on, I don’t know where they get their analysis, or what they read. For me it’s a completely different reality. All of their assessments were based on initially false operational information. They don’t know Ukraine.
Abridged translation by Eilish Hart