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‘I don’t want them to turn Ukraine into Putin’s Russia’ Oleksii Arestovych is gearing up to run for the Ukrainian presidency, promising voters peace with Moscow
Oleksii Arestovych, who’s become one of Ukraine’s most recognizable politicians since the start of the war, recently announced that he’s planning to participate in the upcoming presidential elections. In January 2023, Arestovych, while serving as an Adviser to the Office of the President of Ukraine, left Zelensky’s administration. Arestovych resigned amid a barrage of criticism sparked by a statement he made that a Russian missile could have hit a residential building in Dnipro only because it was shot down by Ukrainian air defenses (Russian propaganda happily picked up this statement; the politician later said that he simply misspoke due to overwork). Over the past year, Arestovych has been increasingly vocal in his criticism of Zelensky and his inner circle, taking positions that many in Ukraine consider pro-Russian. Now, Arestovych is suggesting that Ukrainians participate in peace negotiations with Moscow. Meduza Special Correspondent Elizaveta Antonova spoke with Oleksii Arestovych about why he joined the opposition and what he plans to do if he becomes president. Meduza in English is sharing a lightly abridged translation.
You announced your plans to run for President of Ukraine. In your opinion, how likely is it that Ukraine will hold elections in March 2024, as was planned before Russia’s full-scale invasion?
It depends on many factors that are not currently possible to analyze — they cannot be predicted or calculated. We can say that [Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky's] term in office expires on March 31. And regular elections must be held. It’s unclear whether they will be held or not. But they will definitely happen — sooner or later. And I think it will be sooner rather than later.
The situation demands it. You see, Ukrainian society can afford to quietly postpone the elections of parliament, whose authority expired at the end of October. But presidential power has always been emotionally, symbolically charged. Ukrainian society, or some part of it, would see postponing presidential elections as usurping power. Let’s combine this with the failures on the front, to put it mildly, and the harsh winter that lies ahead. I believe that every mistake [the authorities make] after March 31st will be closely scrutinized.
What’s more, 2024 is a very unique year. The Russian presidential elections in March, the U.S. presidential elections in November, and European parliamentary elections, are all set to take place. And [the European parliament is] one of the main E.U. bodies, on which Ukraine’s fate very much depends. So all of our key partners and our enemies will be re-legitimized in 2024, while the Ukrainian authorities will not, if there are no elections. This could bring about a crisis of legitimacy, which would directly impact aid to Ukraine and our position in the world. And we’re definitely not interested in that.
People’s fatigue with the war, Ukraine’s lack of real prospects for victory, and a crisis of legitimacy — domestic and international — almost definitely means there will be elections of some form or another.
Do you plan to run in the elections no matter when they take place?
Definitely. Even if they are in two years, I’ll still run.
Have you discussed your plans with the President’s Office?
No. I’m at odds with the office because I’m now in the opposition. But their actions are, frankly, beyond my understanding of the normal political process.
Firstly, there were signs of unauthorized wiretapping, surveillance of the administration at my philosophy and psychology school [Meduza notes that this has not been confirmed].
Secondly, the police showed up at my house. In our country, no one will lay a finger on a former adviser [to the head of the Ukrainian president's office]. This would only be done with the permission of [the country's leadership]. So, a police squad showed up at my house. And according to some reports, they were Ukrainian Security Service officers in disguise [Meduza notes that this has not been confirmed].
When was this?
This was right after I gave an uncomplimentary interview about President [Zelensky’s] trip to the U.S. at the end of September.
To which outlet?
I spoke with the journalist Vasyl Holovanov — we have a weekly program where I answer viewers’ questions. I was summarizing the results of President [Zelensky’s] visit to the U.S., and a day later, Security Service officers dressed as policemen came to me.
Then, Verkhovna Rada deputies filed a huge number of criminal cases against me. Among the collective signatories, there are many deputies from the ruling party [Servant of the People], who say that I should be arrested, detained, and imprisoned.
On October 12, Verkhovna Rada deputy Inna Sovsun said that Ukraine had opened a criminal case against Arestovych. Prior to that, she had filed a complaint with the police against Arestovych for a video of him making a speech that was posted on September 25. In the video, he said that women are “beings,” that you first want to “fuck” and then “insult” and “strangle without stopping.” He also said that women “should look at men like idols.” In her appeal to law enforcement agencies, Sovsun said that Arestovych had violated Article 300 of Ukraine’s Criminal Code, which is punishable by up to three years in prison. Arestovych rejects the accusations, saying his words were taken out of context.
Today, in response to my commentary on Simon Shuster's article, there were again voices of ruling party deputies. And the final, the climax: National Security and Defense Council Secretary, Oleksiy Danilov, who is a direct subordinate of Zelensky, said I’m a Russian spy, acting in Russia’s interests, and law enforcement is looking into me.
Under circumstances like these, you can understand that it’s hard to build a relationship with the [president’s] office. And I have no desire to do so. I made my assessment of the office long ago. Both of the president and of the office.
I believe that there is a lot of political pressure because I’m in the opposition. They don’t hesitate to do practically anything, including direct accusations. In a decent, democratic country, they would have to answer to people who they baselessly accused of espionage [i.e. me]. But you can see what’s happening in Ukraine — you can spread very serious accusations without facing any consequences. That’s precisely why I’m running for president — to prevent this from happening in our country.
In April 2022, you spoke with us from the President’s Office and you weren’t in the opposition. For those who haven’t followed Ukrainian domestic politics, could you explain at which specific moment you joined the opposition?
Look, on January 17, 2023, I left the president’s office after a disagreement about the strike on Dnipro. However, I continued to support the position of Ukraine's highest military and political leadership.
The president’s office orders 70% of the compromising information about me. [Meduza notes that this has not been confirmed.] The first publications appeared at the end of March 2022, just one month after the war started. This whole time, I knew perfectly well who was ordering it and what was being ordered.
At what exact moment did everything change?
In the early stages of the war, my approval rating was very high, second only to the president’s. So already then, [President Zelensky and I] were in competition, even though I was a member of the team. I stood honestly by the President and the higher military-political leadership. I worked for a year and a half with these people, knowing they were stabbing me in the back at every opportunity. I worked in Ukraine’s interests.
I knew how they were harming [Ukraine] by spreading mass corruption, by leading the country down an authoritarian path… Instead of reforms, there was stagnation, monopolization, and so on — in short, all the hallmarks of a collapsing democracy. But I tolerated it because I believed that their actions were more beneficial to the country than they were harmful. There was a balance then. But by this past summer, I realized that the harm [from Zelensky's team] outweighed the benefits. I became completely convinced of this after seeing the results of [Zelensky's] visit to the United States.
I spoke up. I began with cautious criticism and then intensified it as [the President’s office] took actions that were against Ukraine’s national interests. The counteroffensive [by the Ukrainian army] was the last straw for me, because I know why it was unsuccessful. The President demanded troops be redeployed in the direction of Bakhmut — in my opinion, that’s absolute madness. And a significant part of the blame for the failure of the counteroffensive lies personally with Zelensky [Meduza notes that exactly how decisions about the Ukrainian strategy towards Bakhmut were made is unknown]. That's when I, as a military man, got infuriated, you know?
Therefore, I want to emphasize that while they were personally insulting me, I endured it, I didn’t allow myself to criticize anything, I supported [Zelensky’s team]. Compared to the fate of Ukraine, my spat-upon back is a minor factor. Even when they went for my people, I didn't get fully worked up. But when I realized what they were doing with Ukraine, that's when I spoke up.
Are you in Ukraine now?
No, of course not. I have a number of international forums where I’m a key speaker. That is, I have a formal reason to be abroad. But, as you understand, when the secretary of the National Security and Defense Council and deputies from the ruling party accuse you of being a Russian spy and promise to imprison you, this by no means encourages a return.
Therefore, I fear that I might have to remain an opposition politician in exile and even participate in elections from abroad. All this easily qualifies as direct political persecution. Well then, we'll play this game from here, from abroad.
So, you'll conduct your presidential campaign from abroad?
It’s not out of the question if they continue to act this way. Because they now have full power, martial law, they throw around baseless accusations, which could well be followed by actions. Becoming a voluntary victim of their whims isn’t part of my life plans.
What country are you in right now?
I’m always traveling. I actually have a lot of events I’m attending right now. Really.
Are you going to create a party for the elections?
Have you thought of a name?
The Arestovych Party. Only personality-based parties work in Ukraine. There's a brand, and we're going to work on it.
Have you conducted any polls? What are the current numbers?
I haven’t conducted any polls, but those who have say that I’m definitely a potential presidential candidate. That was even before my announcement [about participating in the elections]. The data vary greatly, and, unfortunately, most public opinion polls are a political strategy tool. They’re very often far from reality. And let’s not forget that politician’ ratings during a war are one thing, while their post-war ratings are another. So, we’ll see what kind of ratings everyone has.
I already see that my platform has been received generally positively by people, by some very positively, and by others moderately positively. Even people who are my main opponents and haters have said: well, Arestovych is a scoundrel, of course, but the platform merits attention. Let’s discuss it.
On November 1, Arestovych posted his election platform to his Telegram channel. It includes the declaration of a state of emergency in the economy, national security, energy, and finance sectors; an audit of the country, to be carried out by one of the “Big Four” companies (Deloitte, Pricewaterhouse Coopers, Ernst & Young, and KPMG); and tax and customs code reforms. He also suggests a shift to “strategic defense on the front” and a change in the Ukrainian Armed Forces’ personnel policy toward a “people-centered” approach. Arestovych also proposes changing the mobilization system to allow men to leave the country with the condition of returning in case of a draft. And one more point that appears crucial: “A proposal to the collective West — we demand entry into NATO with a commitment not to reclaim the territories occupied at the time of joining and to seek their return solely through political means.”
We’ll go back to your platform. But on the topic of support: If elections take place in March 2024, how much of the vote do you think you would receive?
It’s very hard to say, honestly. My current approach is this: I’m not using political strategy. I’m following my conscience, being organic, just the way I am. Political strategists have offered to help me multiple times, but I consistently declined. Ukrainian citizens will decide whether they need me or not, and to what extent, in terms of percentage.
You say you’re not using political strategists, but many are confident that your strategist is Yuriy Romanenko. Is that true?
No, Yuriy Romanenko is not my strategist, but a close colleague, a friend. We’re a pair — he’s my closest friend and ally. But we don’t use political strategy, we don’t use political strategists. I deeply dislike strategy when I address my own people.
Will you be inviting any well-known public figures from Ukraine to partner with you?
I won’t name anyone right now because it would immediately expose them to persecution. It’s enough that I’m being persecuted. The day the elections are announced and the campaign process begins, they will receive the appropriate immunity, and I’ll reveal who’s on my team. It will surprise everyone. There are people whose names will be shocking to many.
Are there people who are currently part of the Servant of the People party or close to the President?
Let’s wait until the team is revealed.
So, that means you’re not denying that there are?
No, there is no one close to the President or from Servant of the People [party] on my team.
And what about cultural figures?
There will be very familiar faces, you’ll like it.
And are they still in Ukraine?
Most of them, yes. That’s exactly why I’m not naming them.
Returning to the topic of approval ratings. Since you’re running, I assume you believe you can become president?
Yes, I think that under certain scenarios, I have a good chance.
You don’t think that women won’t vote for you after your statement? I’m specifically referring to this quote: “Tell me what you want to do with these creatures! Strangle them! Choke them without letting go. At first, of course, you want to fuck them, but when you’re tired of it — strangle her to hell so that she never existed.”
That’s an absolutely outrageous “fake,” pulled out of thin air, a political order. I posted this seminar publicly and anyone can see that right after these words, there’s an explanation: “That’s what some weak men think.” We’re not like that — and under no circumstance can we act like this.
A question about your platform. Will there be anything about using the Russian language?
My position is simple: support Ukrainian and give other languages freedom. [Now in Ukraine] we can’t be considered free. We need to stop persecuting the Russian language. Persecution for using any language on our territory should be firmly stopped.
You mean an equal proportion of languages?
Not equal. Ukrainian will be given the priority, government aid will be directed to the development of Ukrainian, but all the other [languages] will be used freely.
At the state level?
Well, yes, no one will be persecuted, for example, for publishing a book in the Russian language. Russian books will be published privately, for those who want them. [Just like] in the Azeri language, Armenian, Belarusian, whichever. And Ukrainian will be given state support. Ukrainian culture has suffered greatly in the past few centuries. It was deliberately persecuted and our historical duty is to fix this.
And in the cultural sphere — plays, films?
Yeah, I’ll allow everything, no problem. Persecuting cultural output in Russian is a human rights violation, a violation of the constitution. There are, of course, books that are anti-Ukrainian, but that is determined by Ukraine’s Security Service after appropriate analysis. Their presence will not be encouraged in Ukraine. But normal literature and art are welcome, no matter how much.
In your platform, you say that you’re prepared for “the Kissinger option.” This would mean that Crimea and Donbas would stay occupied by Russia?
It’s a temporary decision. We’ll wait for Putin to leave power and then we’ll come back to these issues of the occupied territories when there’s a new Russian leader. I’m sure that this leadership would be more reasonable than Putin.
Why do you think that the Russian leadership after Putin would agree to give away territory?
I have a very strong feeling that only Putin, [Defense Minister Sergey] Shoigu, and some other people associated with them in Russia truly want wars. Everybody else is reasonable enough to understand that Russia is part of the civilized West, and they want to return to normal life so that Russians will stop being a threat and so they are not stripped of their property or subjected to sanctions.
Surveys indicate that Ukrainians are set on the country returning to its 1991 borders.
That’s true. But I’ll explain to them, life will explain to them. Our army couldn’t take Tokmak. It’s quite possible that the country will soon lose Avdiivka. There’s definitely no more talk about the 1991 borders. Moreover, when they [Ukrainians] endure the winter, which will see blows to the country’s energy infrastructure, I believe there will be fewer people who want the war to go on until the victorious end.
But that’s not the most important argument. Even if we were to reach the borders of 1991, which is highly unlikely, who can guarantee that the war will end there? The war could continue further. We need to end the war. And we can talk about the borders.
Among the alternatives, I suggest not just giving up the occupied territories to Russia, but joining NATO, receiving political and military guarantees from the bloc, the opportunity for peaceful development, economic and cultural [growth]. And then patiently waiting for regime change in Russia. It’s happened in history before, and we can do it again.
You yourself mentioned that you are called a Kremlin agent. What would you say in response to these accusations?
Yeah, it’s all very simple. I’m a Ukrainian officer who swore allegiance to the Ukrainian people to protect them without sparing any effort. I’ll faithfully carry out my allegiance. All speculations must be backed by evidence.
My defense of the Russian language and culture is, above all, defense of human rights and freedom. And if we’re building a country where the Russian language is persecuted, how are we any different from Putin, who persecutes Ukrainian? We aren’t. I don’t want them to turn Ukraine into Putin’s Russia. We’re fighting for freedom. That means we must adhere to all the criteria of freedom.
Will there be anything else in your platform related to Russia?
Russia is our neighbor, it’s not going anywhere. Putins come and go, but Russia will stay there. We’re all interested in two things. Firstly, for Russia to become a strong, free, democratic country. Secondly, for Russia to become a part of the West. And in preventing it from drifting toward China and becoming China’s nuclear satellite state. It may well turn out that we can become, if not neutral, then allies, with a future Russia, within the framework of a united Western stance, for example. That’s why all elements of dehumanizing Russians are a fundamental strategic mistake.
We must build relations with Russia. With Putin, by deterring him through armed means, including with the help of our allies. He must understand that any further attempt to take over Ukraine will face a strong armed response.
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