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The rise and fall of Ukraine’s ‘therapist-in-chief’ Zelensky adviser Oleksiy Arestovych is out of a job, but likely not for long

Source: Meduza
Alfredas Pliadis / Alamy / Vida Press

Oleksiy Arestovych, now-former advisor to Volodymyr Zelensky’s Chief of Staff Andriy Yermak, has resigned from his job. It couldn’t have been otherwise, following the scandal precipitated by his remark that the Russian missile that killed 45 in Dnipro may have been shot down by the Ukrainian air defense. That narrative was instantly picked up by the Kremlin and its propagandists, while officials back in Ukraine accused the presidential advisor of treasonous egotism. But, if the President’s Office made no effort to bail out its publicity advisor, it was probably because his propaganda skills no longer matched Kyiv’s sense of what kind of publicity it needed in wartime Ukraine. Arestovych had spent the early days of the invasion assuring Ukrainians that victory was no further than “a couple of weeks” away, but as the war dragged on and grew grimly routinized, Arestovych’s reputation as Ukraine’s “therapist-in-chief” began to work against him. Having helped Zelensky’s staff buffer the first shock of the invasion, he began to grate on audiences that previously trusted him. His fall, says Ukrainian politics scholar Konstantin Skorkin, may have been as precipitous as his rise, but it needn’t signal the end of Arestovych’s political career, and here’s why.

A media trickster

Oleksiy Arestovych is an archetypal fluid and unpredictable “trickster”: his biography is a patchwork of acting, intelligence work, esoteric and theological studies, political blogging, and radical politicking. (In 2005–2009, he was a member of the right-wing Brotherhood party, created by another political “trickster,” Dmytro Korchynsky.) Arestovych excelled at cultivating a protean and effervescent public image, making good on the propagandist credentials that ultimately led him to Ukrainian high politics.

Arestovych joined Zelensky’s staff in October 2020, at first as a Ukrainian spokesman in a “three-way contact group” for regulating the Donbas conflict. The Minsk talks had by then come to a standstill, and what Ukraine needed most was not so much an experienced communicator as an information fighter capable of advancing the Ukrainian position in spite of any resistance. In this setting, his caustic public persona, coupled with an ability to connect with the Russian side and Russian audiences, appeared in the best possible light. Within a couple of months, Arestovych was appointed advisor to Zelensky’s Chief of Staff Andriy Yermak and charged with overseeing strategic communications in the security and defense arenas.

“The task of Mr. Arestovych,” Yermak explained at the time, “is to provide exhaustive answers, so as to counter the spread of disinformation and accusations.” This job description had sprung up from the early days of the Zelensky presidency, which were marked by a series of publicity debacles and conflicts between the President’s Office and the media. Another figure who joined the staff at that time, for the same reasons, was the political consultant and media manager Mykhailo Podolyak.

By early 2022, Arestovych had grown weary of his role — so much so that he resigned from the President’s Office on January 17. But a month later, his relationship with Zelensky and his team was cardinally altered by war. Come February, he was back as a key spokesperson on the wartime president’s staff.

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‘What, like I directly pressed the fucking button?’ Journalists contacted the men Ukraine says are responsible for Russia’s Dnipro strike

Another Russian narrative of the dnipro missile strike

‘What, like I directly pressed the fucking button?’ Journalists contacted the men Ukraine says are responsible for Russia’s Dnipro strike

An idol who began to grate

Arestovych rejoined Zelensky’s team at a critical moment. Ukraine was being assaulted by Putin’s military machinery, Russian forces were just outside of Kyiv, and the future was obscured by the fog of war. In this unstable setting, Arestovych assumed the role of the nation’s “therapist-in-chief.” In his daily YouTube briefings, he told the nation that the situation was under control, Ukraine had an advantage, and the war would be over soon.

In that capacity, he was dazzling. In May 2022, only the president himself had a higher approval rating among Ukrainians, judging by a National Democratic Institute poll conducted at the time. In July, Arestovych was once again second only to Zelensky in Ukrainian public opinion ratings. He also knew how to galvanize the Russian audience — or, at the very least, the part of Russian society that’s capable of taking interest in views that contradict the official line. His talents were grudgingly acknowledged by Russian propagandists; as for the liberal intelligentsia, its members were simply enamored with Arestovych (see, for example, his conversations with the Russian writer Dmitry Bykov).

But, from the very start of the invasion, it was clear that Arestovych’s career as a spokesman for the wartime government couldn’t last forever. As the conflict dragged on, gradually becoming routinized in the grimmest way, Arestovych’s rhetoric was less and less the answer to the conditions on the ground. He had no privileged access to information and made no decisions. His job was to communicate what was happening at the front in terms a layperson could understand.

“His judgments and reasoning were grounded in practically the same information that’s available to any concerned citizen with a great deal of free time to surf Telegram channels and sift through large quantities of information,” said journalist Leonid Shvets. “Oleksiy worked with information, but he had no special behind-the-scenes access.”

Over time, Arestovych began losing ground to other official speakers. His provocative remarks — like his declaration of presidential ambitions to the Ukrainian journalist Dmytro Gordon — started to grate on his audience, and possibly even on some officials. His defense of Russian as a language of the Ukrainian academe led to accusations of insufficient patriotism. Ukrainian political culture is notorious for its reversals. Arestovych confirmed this once again, by sliding easily from stardom to toxicity.

Although Yermak was well-disposed towards Arestovych, the rest of the President’s Office grew lukewarm towards a crisis manager whose services it no longer needed. By the close of 2022, a new parting looked plausible. When Arestovych told Mark Feygin that the missile that killed 45 in Dnipro might have been shot down by the Ukrainian air defense, that narrative was instantly adopted by the Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov and by Russian Ambassador to the UN Vasily Nebenzya. Ukrainians, on the other hand, were indignant with Arestovych for supplying Russia with arguments, and his excuse that he was “tired” sounded feeble against the backdrop of the rescue workers still trying to save people buried alive under the rubble in Dnipro.

In the end, Arestovych was forced to apologize and resign. No one seems to have tried to talk him out of leaving the job. Whitewashing the tainted advisor would clearly have cost more than he was worth.

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Russian language, Ukrainian politics

Arestovych’s resignation immediately gave rise to speculations about his next move. While his dubious “well-wishers” in Russia gloat about him joining Zelensky’s opposition, he shows no sign of acting on resentment. Nor does his official departure mean that he won’t consult the President’s Office behind the scenes. In Arestovych’s own account, his position with respect to the administration is simple: “Full support while this war continues. After the war, we’ll see.”

By exploiting his remarks, Russia played a role in removing him from office — and Arestovych wouldn’t be the trickster that he is if he failed to exploit this fact by suggesting that those who wanted him removed were themselves colluding with the Russians:

Our, pardon me, “opposition” has conducted a joint informational operation with the Russians, against a Ukrainian citizen. I have a question: was this not a synchronized campaign?

Whether one views Arestovych as charismatic or narcissistic, it’s hard to imagine him staying out of the limelight for very long. It’s easy, on the other hand, to imagine him embarking on a political career. Not in the short term, of course — all political processes being frozen while Ukraine is at war — but in the post-war future.

Serhiy Rakhmanin, a veteran journalist and politician from Ukraine, predicts that his country’s political landscape is bound for populist renovations after the war. “Once again, orators will be in demand — charismatic, vibrant, eloquent people,” he says. The banned pro-Russian parties will leave, in their wake, a vacuum that could be filled by a new political initiative geared especially towards the Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine. Arestovych could very well then form a party that could potentially act as an ally of the ruling Servant of the People.

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Konstantin Skorkin, translated by Anna Razumnaya

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