Transcript: Top Ukrainian official Andriy Yermak on Russia’s military moves against Ukraine and a possible Putin-Biden-Zelenskyy summit

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Andriy Yermak
Head, Office of the President of Ukraine


Frederick Kempe
President and CEO, Atlantic Council


John E. Herbst
Senior Director, Eurasia Center, Atlantic Council

FREDERICK KEMPE: Good morning in Washington, and good afternoon in Kyiv and across Europe, and hello to our listeners throughout the world. I’m Fred Kempe. I’m president and CEO of the Atlantic Council. Welcome to this timely addition of Atlantic Council Front Page, our premier live ideas forum for global leaders. And we do have a wonderful leader today and a global audience. I’m honored to welcome Andriy Yermak, the head of the Office of the President of Ukraine. Mr. Yermak has been a key advocate for Ukraine’s security in the face of Moscow’s buildup of troops near Ukraine’s border.

Today’s discussion comes on the heels of three major diplomatic meetings this week. On Monday, Deputy Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman led the US in bilateral talks with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov. NATO allies convened additional discussions with Moscow and the NATO Russia Council on Wednesday. And just yesterday the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe met for multilateral talks to discuss Russian aggression against Ukraine and Europe, which included Ukraine at the table.

And there’s much more going on away from the table. Hackers brought down several Ukrainian government websites on Friday, posting a message on one of them—the Foreign Ministry’s—saying: Be afraid and expect the worst. These aren’t the first hacks of critical sites in Ukraine. At the same time, [Russian] Deputy Foreign Minister Ryabkov is talking about moving military infrastructure to Venezuela and Cuba if the tensions with the US continue. That all just underscores that we are at the beginning of a period of time that’s likely to be tense.

But this forum is the first to deliver an in-depth review of the meetings that occurred this week from the Ukrainian side. The Cold War’s peaceful end thirty years ago was supposed to usher in what President George H.W. Bush at that time called “a Europe whole and free.” That vision of Europe whole and free collides with President Putin’s vision for his own reversal of the breakout of the Soviet Union, which he’s famously called the greatest political tragedy of the twentieth century.

The Atlantic Council has been a leader in the conversation about and with Ukraine since 2014. We understood from the very beginning that this was certainly about Ukraine’s independence, its sovereignty, its democracy. But the stakes were actually much higher than that. We are proud to have been a clear and consistent voice reminding the world that Moscow began this conflict, and the Kremlin continues its aggression across Europe and particularly in Ukraine. The Eurasia Center previously hosted President Zelenskyyy, Mr. Yermak, and Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba as part of our efforts in 2020 to maintain public attention on the war in Ukraine’s east.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last week, “one lesson of recent history is that once Russians are in your house it’s sometimes difficult to get them to leave.” Mr. Yermak and his Ukrainian counterparts understand that probably better than any others. That’s why I’m pleased to have Mr. Yermak with us today to share his perspective on the situation on the ground and the talks that occurred this week.

Now, let me say just a couple of things by way of introduction of our guest. He has served as the de-facto chief of staff to Ukrainian President Zelenskyy since February 2020, but he served as a top advisor to the president since his inauguration in 2019. His focus has always been to support Ukraine’s independence, having acted as a chief negotiator on behalf of Ukraine in several high-level negotiations, including the Normandy format meeting and the high-level prisoner swaps between Russia and Ukraine in 2020.

As always, this Atlantic Council Front Page discussion is on the record. Ambassador John Herbst, senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and former US ambassador to Ukraine, will take over in a moment to begin this conversation with Mr. Yermak. Once again, thank you all for joining us today. John, over to you.

JOHN E. HERBST: Thank you.

Mr. Yermak, thank you for joining us today. Would you like me to ask the first question or do you want to say something up front?

ANDRIY YERMAK: Yes. Dear President Kempe, dear Ambassador Herbst, dear colleagues and friends, good day. And first of all, the last [of] our meetings I spoke in Ukrainian under the translator. Today [I’ll] try to speak English. In advance, I’d like to say that [I’m] sorry if [there] will be some mistakes.

Once again it’s nice to see all of [you]. And let me start with words of gratitude for inviting me to the Atlantic Council and granting the opportunity to speak with you today.

Especially, I’d like to use this opportunity to say thank you very much, because it’s this very, I think, historical moment for Ukraine, for Ukrainian independence, and we [have] big concerns [about] the potential aggressions from the side of Russia. And, of course, we today feel absolutely strong—and I think it’s maybe more strong [than] during all the history of independence of Ukraine—it’s strong support and strong help of all our partners, of all our friends.

I can say that practically every day we have—the president of Ukraine, Vladimir Zelenskyy, our team, myself—we have phone [conversations] with world leaders. Of course, more often we [speak] with our friends and our partners from the United States, beginning from the level of the president. I’m practically every week [communicating] with Jake Sullivan, [and] the people from State Department.

Of course, for us, for all [the] Ukrainian nation, Ukrainian people, it’s very, very important. You know that for President Zelenskyy, for all [of] our team, the most important thing, [is] our people—their safety, health, and happiness. And of course, we want to live in [a] strong and independent country.

You know that President Zelenskyy was a very successful person before his political career. And his main goal before the presidential campaign, and it’s still his main goal, is, first of all, to stop the war in Ukraine, and the second, to make historical reforms in our country. And I can say that honestly, I don’t know another country in the world, in [such] critical conditions, [that] was able to continue, really, its important real historical reforms.

It’s why it’s so not easy. It’s so, I can say, difficult. And we have very strong opposition of the old, corrupted oligarch system, because you know that if you show and you can exactly doing the real reforms, of course, it’s not [an] easy case. But President Zelenskyy is absolutely [keeping] his principled position in this area.

Of course, the most important thing, as I said for today, [is our] very big concern of the potential aggression from the side of Russian Federation. Of course, we [have been] living in the conditions of the war [for] more than eighty years. And, of course, eighty years, Ukraine, it’s shown for all the world that… here in our territory, it’s like places which shared between democracy world and others.

More than forty-thousand of our citizens [were] killed during this war, and this is a big tragedy. But [at] the same time, I can say that, first of all, freedom—it’s in our blood. Freedom—it’s our mentality. Independence is our mentality. And I can say that 100 percent of the guarantee that if it [happens]—I mean aggressions—the majority of the people in Ukraine will be [defending] our country.

Sometimes the people ask, what is the difference between 2014 and now? I can say, yes, a lot of our heroes, during these eight years, defend and continue to defend our country. But now it’s absolutely a main, strong principle of our people. As [for] why? Because we have [an] onus. And speaking with friends, I can say that the help of our partners, which we have felt, the support, will be justified 100 percent because it’s important that when you help some country, the country itself [uses] all 100 percent of the possibility to defend the country.

I can say that we can see [over] the last month how, beginning from the energy crisis, which was [felt] in all Europe, how the gas used by Russian Federation like weapons, and I can say that just maybe in the same second that the memorandum between the United States and Germany was signed in which our partners said if gas will be used like weapons, we have the plans to continue sanctions, but now we can see it’s happened in the same second that these documents was signed. And today, nobody have the—any imagination that, one, the mutual strong position of all partners around Ukraine, around the democracy will give to us the light and the real opportunity to settle and to find the ways out of this situation.

We’re absolutely happy and appreciated that today the principals nothing about Ukraine, nothing which connected to Ukraine, impossible to discuss without participation of Ukraine. And of course, I can say that when today Russia in different levels, in different platforms started to discuss some European system of security, our position is following: How it’s possible to talk about some system of European security without settlement of Ukrainian case, without stopping the biggest war in the center of the Europe? It’s impossible. This conversation, necessary to start it from the Ukrainian case.

I can’t not talk about the questions of the NATO. I think it’s time to have a very honest, very proper, very transparent conversation with Ukraine about our perspective in NATO. I think that during this period of the war of the old history of our starting conversation about NATO, Ukraine show by our principles, by our positions, that we are absolutely ready, able, to be a membership of the NATO. It’s mean that in Madrid summit this year we hope to see and to listen absolutely concrete terms, absolutely concrete information about it because, today, especially today, I wanted to repeat it, that now it’s questions of the life and the death of our country.

And I think that it’s necessary and the time absolutely concrete to understand. It’s very good that we listen about the very strong sanctions which mentioned by United States, mentioned by our other partners, which can be issued in the case of the aggression of the Russia.

But, please understand, if it’s happened, it will be—it will be big tragedy and you understand it will be big war because, once again, the mostly people—the most citizens of the Ukraine will fight against aggressors. And, of course, these sanctions, these steps, it’s necessary to think, you know, how to make everything together, how to protect, how to not give the opportunity for aggressors to make these crazy decisions.

And, of course, I can say that the level—we’re—lots of times we listen a lot of conversation about the unity of the Ukrainian society. I can say for you that the level of the unity of Ukrainian society is very high, and this unity around the President Zelenskyy, who still have very high support of Ukrainian society because the people see and the people started to feel that, really, some very important reform is—it’s doing, how build the thousands kilometers of the road, how it’s changed the real level. Of course, it’s a pity that it’s impossible to change the level of the life of the 100 percent of all our population.

But now, in this year, we changed this level of the salaries of the—our doctors, who is fighting in another war against COVID, against pandemia, and, you know, that we really can say that we control the situation. We continue to opening the new hospitals, the new schools. We increased the budget and continue the budget for our army because after eight years of the war, we never give to any opportunity to not have strong professional army.

I think that one of the most important laws which was adopted last year, it was the law against oligarchs’ corrupted systems. I got to inform—maybe I can agree that it’s maybe not enough communications about this law and I use this opportunity to say that this law, it’s not against any personal. It’s against the system and, of course, it’s the first step. It’s frame a law which give and started this procedure because, you know, all the history of independent Ukraine, the oligarch systems keep all areas of the—of the power alive. I can, like a joke, explain for you the examples that it was then the government tried to found the candidates for the Ministry of Energy. It was impossible because just a small assistance, all employees of this ministry was belong to one of the oligarchs who has controlled during long period of time the sectors of the energy economy of Ukraine.

I think that we very happy that our partners—and, once again, thank you for so kind of the platforms like Atlantic Council—more deeply understand Ukraine—real Ukrainian power. Our ideas, with our principles, with our goals, I think that it gives to us some importance in this critical moment so big attention, so big support which we feel. And this make us more strong. Absolutely it concentrated confidence for our position. And I can say, I wanted to not lose the time and give you the opportunity to answer to your questions.

In the final to say that really Ukrainian power, Ukrainian society, ready to any challenges, to—of course, together with our partners, we continue to doing everything to not make it possible, these situations. But believe me that we are ready, we are united, we are strong. And I think we are—we’ll be winner in these challenges. Thank you very much. I’m ready to answer to your questions.

 JOHN E. HERBST: OK. Thank you, Mr. Yermak, for that very comprehensive, broad statement. I’d like to ask you first about the cyberattacks that were launched against Ukraine today. What is your assessment and what are you doing now?

ANDRIY YERMAK: Yes. I just before one hour of our meetings have the conversation with our vice prime minister and the minister of the information, Mr. Fedorov. Digitalization is more correct. And he informed that for this moment practically 90 percent of these sites will—restarted to work. Now the security service, our intelligence, very deeply analyze. And of course, we have some thoughts who is made it. And when they will be ready to officially inform and to make some official steps. Of course, in the coordination with our partners, because we are very closely cooperating with United States, with Great Britain.

And of course, we absolutely will be ready to answer to this attack and continue to work with our partners to protect. But honestly, it was part of the concern which were received in the level of our intelligence from our partners and take ourselves from our intelligence that it’s one of the potential part of the internal destabilization of the situation in Ukraine. And I think unfortunately it’s one of the examples, but at the same time I can inform that the most strategic infrastructure in Ukraine, it was not destroyed by this attack. This is a very good protected. And of course, we will continue in general of the protection of this system.

JOHN E. HERBST: All right. Thank you.

We’ve just witnessed a very unusual week of diplomacy—the bilateral talks between Russia and the United States in Geneva, the NATO-Russia talks in Brussels, and then the OSCE talks in Vienna. Do you think Ukraine’s interests were adequately protected in these three sets of conversations?

ANDRIY YERMAK: I can say answer to this very concrete. We listen personally from President Biden, from the President Michel, from the Prime Minister Johnson, from Chancellor Scholz, from President Macron, and many other leaders that all of them, they keep the principle nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine. And President Biden did several times by each confirmed conversation with President Zelenskyy repeated this phrase and these guarantees. We hope and we believe that this principle, it’s key.

We really appreciated that after each of these consultations/negotiations, we received very deep consultation and we received the information before and after from our American colleagues. I once again can repeat that practically every week I have the—and very appreciate of this conduct—with Jake Sullivan, plus I’m very open to—spoke with Karen Donfried, with Toria Nuland. The minister on foreign affairs just last week two times spoke with State Secretary Blinken. It means that we think that this principle, it’s keeping by our partners.

JOHN E. HERBST: I think the Biden administration has done a pretty good job in pushing back against Kremlin threats, especially with the talk about sanctions, talk about deploying more NATO forces to the east, and sending more weapons to Ukraine. Although it could be a little bit better, it’s been pretty good. What do you think the US, NATO, the EU should be doing to help Ukraine that it’s not doing right now?

ANDRIY YERMAK: I think that we make some absolutely concrete proposal. First of all, I’d like to affirm that on Monday I had the meetings and Mr. President for some—for short period of time participated in these negotiations in Kyiv where the political advisor of the Normandy format from Germany and France, Mr. Bonne and Mr. Plötner, and I prepared and shared with them the—our positions concerning the continuing of the negotiations in Normandy and in Minsk. And you know about 10 steps which Ukraine proposals how unblock the negotiations in Minsk and in Normandy.

We are very appreciative to very leadership of the United States and participation like a parallel track for the United States. And this is important that the United States occupied very correct positions and said we wanted to be involved to destroy any existing formats, but we continue our track—bilateral negotiations with Russia. And of course, President Zelenskyy proposed to President Biden, and we think it can be worked, to organize trilateral meetings, maybe by videoconference, between President Biden, President Zelenskyy, and President Putin. We’re still waiting for the reaction of this, I think, from the Russian side, but our American partners take our proposal with some interest. I think that very proactive position involving Ukraine in all level of negotiations, in each platforms, and said once again if it’s discussing the security system in Europe, it’s necessary involving Ukraine.

If we are talking with OSCE, you know that OSCE, it’s a very strong possible instrument which honestly not work, for my opinion, 100 percent. I can give you examples. Two weeks ago we decided in Minsk, TCG group, that we are back for the ceasefire regime. But this regime, it’s not worked without the verification mechanism. And we proposed that, please, it’s necessary that somebody will control how it works. And we say, please, come to this verification mechanism, verification groups. They are all members of the Normandy. I mean Germany, France, Russia, and Ukraine.

Still waiting the answer. I think it’s not difficult to do because it’s now in the mission of OSCE in Ukraine, we have the citizens and the representative of Germany, France, and I think—I’m not sure, but it seems to me—and Russia itself. I think it can be very strong and very concrete step because we can see that some days now the breaking of the ceasefire today, it’s up to 10 times per day. It’s double or three times less than was before.

But unfortunately, we lost, during this period of time, five of our soldiers, and some people was damaged. And we can see that and are absolutely sure that if this mechanism will start to work, we can have zero breaking of ceasefire. And, of course, you understand if the people not killed and you have this good atmosphere, it’s a very strong argument to continue negotiations.

JOHN E. HERBST: Thank you. And I think we just made some news when you talked about your idea of a trilateral summit. So I’d like to mention that I’m very jealous of you, because you deal with a guy who’s the point man for Russian aggression against its neighbors, Dmitri Kozak, someone I’d be interested in talking to myself.

But how would you describe your relationship with him as you try to work through the Minsk process?

ANDRIY YERMAK: We have, of course, not—we are working, and he represents the Russian Federation already about two years. Of course, it was very difficult times. It’s difficult negotiations. But I’d like to mention and to remind that in the working this team, we was able to make exchange, the prisoners, to make two times decided about ceasefire.

I think that, you know, he represents his country. I represent Ukraine. I’m always ready for constructive positions. Very often it’s very difficult. But I can say that I will continue to talk and hope that Mr. Kozak will listen the—our logic of our position. And I hope and to do from my side, from the side of all Ukrainian delegation, to do everything, to use just 1 percent of the opportunity to protect our people, to stop the war, and to back our territories.

JOHN E. HERBST: Thank you. In your opening remarks, you spoke very eloquently about how the Ukrainian people were united, and they were prepared to fight if Moscow sends those 100,000-plus troops into Ukraine. The Russian threat includes forces on your eastern border alongside Donbas, to your northeast where they can come into Ukraine either through Donbas or through Belarus, and of course in Crimea. Are you prepared for the various possibilities of a Russian escalation, be that trying to seize Mariupol, trying to create the Novorossiya corridor from Luhansk down to Odessa, and maybe even beyond Odessa to Transnistria? Trying to seize the water canal north of Crimea. Perhaps seizing Shake Island in the Black Sea. Do you think you’re prepared for all of these possibilities?

ANDRIY YERMAK: Thank you, John, for these questions. You understand the all sensitive of these questions. And of course, I can’t talk a lot about it, about our preparation. But we are absolutely seriously make everything together with our partners to be prepared, including the—our army, including the just civil people who will be involved in the case of these aggressions. Of course, this job, it’s not stopping 24 hours. And you know, I think—I try to answer more philosophical—that you see sometimes the winning the war, it’s the feelings of the people, the patriotic feelings.

And Ukraine two times through our revolution to show to all the world that just if against us more strong army—sometimes it was Polish, sometimes it was people with big money—but our people, so independent they never give back their independence. They never give. Now, as I said, the freedom, it’s our right. And I think that this is a more strong argument. But, by the way, we are very seriously working every day for the preparation in all directions, and in the direction which you mentioned.

JOHN E. HERBST: You—(coughs)—I was struck, positively, by the fact that the United States, Jake Sullivan, have spoken about we are, you know, making plans to help Ukraine for partisan warfare if, in fact, Moscow invades. Is there anything you can mention about this? I realize this is very sensitive, but I think it’s something worth highlighting if you can say publicly something on the subject.

ANDRIY YERMAK: I’m sorry, can you repeat the question?

JOHN E. HERBST: Yes. Yes. The United States has said publicly that among our plans for possible Russian escalation in Ukraine is to help Ukraine fight a partisan war, partyzans’ka viyna.


JOHN E. HERBST: OK. So anything you can say on this, I’d appreciate it.

ANDRIY YERMAK: Yes. Yes. Of course, you know that we are—have this special law of the national resistance and we have the Territorial Defense Force in Ukraine. And at the end of the year, the presidents appoint the chief of this force. And of course, we supported this and we are very seriously prepared, and in this area as well. And I know that the thousands of our civil people will be joined in the case of aggressions to this Territorial Defense Force. And of course, we are very appreciative that it was supported by NATO member states

JOHN E. HERBST: OK, thank you. I mentioned before that we thought—I thought that the Biden response to the Russian buildup, talking about sanctions, talking about NATO forces moving to the east, talking about weapons to Ukraine, was a strong set of responses. But I organized a letter with 24 others which said the problem—one problem here is the administration is only talking about sending those additional weapons later, after an invasion, and only redeploying NATO forces after Moscow sends those troops into Ukraine. We said that should happen now. Do you have any comments on this? Any views?

ANDRIY YERMAK: Can you repeat the final words of your question?

JOHN E. HERBST: Yes. We’ve recommended to the Biden administration that the additional weapons they’re talking about sending to Ukraine should be sent now, so that they’re in your hands before the Russians invade with a large force, and also that the deployment of additional NATO forces—for example, to the Baltic states, to Romania, to Poland—should happen now, just as, as a response to the Russian buildup on your borders, that you’re not waiting till after Moscow sends those troops into Ukraine. Do you have any thoughts on this?

ANDRIY YERMAK: I can say, first of all, thank you very much and we were very—appreciate it. It’s really—we—receiving this help from United States.

President Biden, during the phone conversation with President Zelenskyy, said that United States will doing everything to help Ukraine to be fully prepared to defend our country. But of course, you’re absolutely right, and I mentioned in the beginning: We need the help before something happens. It’s mean—I’d like to back to the sanction policy. I think that it’s not time to change and it’s necessary to back to the 100 percent of the sanction policy because I think it’s necessary to do before. I mean including the sanctions against Nord Stream. I think that before we can exactly see the escalation around the Ukrainian border, it’s necessary to stall any conversation about the potential of this project. I think it’s not time now to discuss what is right sanctions, what is not. I think still we have around our border more than 100,000 Russian soldiers. These questions might be—might be (holdover ?).

JOHN E. HERBST: I certainly agree with you 100 percent on that. While the Biden administration has had, I think, a pretty good policy overall towards Ukraine and Russia, I think their policy on Nord Stream 2 has been a disaster. So let’s talk about this for a minute. I think that Ukraine’s policy on Nord Stream 2 vis-a-vis the United States has been quite brave, because the administration made this dreadful decision in May and doubled down ever since. Even as Moscow used gas as a weapon, they paid no attention to it, kind of denied it, and, you know, you had the German foreign minister in Washington earlier this month and you had the Russian forces on your border earlier this month, and all Blinken could say publicly was that, well, you know, if the Russians send those troops into Ukraine, maybe Nord Stream 2 will not go into operation. Maybe—may not go into operation. Very weak language. A very weak policy. So you have, despite the position of the administration, reached out to Congress, suggesting they should vote, for example, for the Cruz bill, which was voted on yesterday. Why have you taken this position? Again, that takes a fair amount of guts.

ANDRIY YERMAK: John, first of all, sometimes very important between friends to have very open, honest, and friendly discussion. Then you can say everything which you think. I think it’s a show real friends’ friendship relations. I hope and I happy that between the presidents of the United States and Ukraine now this so kind of the relationship. Then they very open can discuss. The same happened between me and Jake Sullivan. I hope the same between Mr. Kuleba and Mr. Blinken.

Yes, of course, sometimes in this issue we have not 100 percent the same position. Our position I told one minute ago about the sanctions. The second, I think that this is a time, because we read in the memorandum between the United States and Germany that we have to receive some guarantees of the transit of the gas through the territory of Ukraine. We’re still waiting that it will be starting the proper honest consultation between Ukraine, Germany, the United States, Russia what will be future, how Ukraine guaranteed to not lose our payment for the transit.

What our perspective? We’re still waiting. And once again, I reminded him about it during our consultation with Plötner on Monday that I think it’s time, and we have the good experience that in 2019 the questions of the gas was discussed in the Normandy format. It was successful, and we think—and our position it’s very strong and very proper—we think that Nord Stream, it’s not business project. It’s aggressions of Ukrainian security, energy—but in general security, and it’s necessary to discuss and to look to this project through the screen of the full security of Ukraine as one, and we know that Germany occupied another position but we still keep our position that it’s necessary to discuss together.

Concerning the bill of the Senator Cruz, I think it’s a very strong signal that majority support it. Yes, it’s not will be enough voices to adopt this law—bill or law, but it was 55 voices supported sanctions. I think it’s a very strong signal from Congress about the position of the senators.

JOHN E. HERBST: I would have to agree with that. The fact that you got 55 votes—six Democrats—demonstrates that congressional support for taking out Nord Stream 2 is very strong, and I think you can build on that, going forward.

OK. I may come back to the security side but let’s talk about domestic policy, at least a little bit. Some people—friends of Ukraine—are concerned about the treason charges that were leveled against former President Poroshenko. Aren’t you concerned that this is reminiscence of Yanukovych going after Tymoshenko, his—former President Yanukovych, who went after his principal political rival? Aren’t you afraid of this look?

ANDRIY YERMAK: I can say, first of all, it’s a very big difference. The case of Tymoshenko, the time of Yanukovych, we have absolutely different president. And he showed during his middle of his terms that he is absolutely a person who is keep democracy principles, the principle of rule of law.

If the people very deeply analyzed the case of Mr. Poroshenko, they understand that this is a case against Mr. Medvedchuk. I think that nobody can dispute about the role of Mr. Medvedchuk in the pro-Russian forces during all this period of time, including the TV channels and a lot of things. And then the people. Sometimes it’s a very open ask, including me, including—and other people in our team. Do you think it’s in time of this case? I always answer: First of all, President Zelenskyy, the team, we try to demonstrate that possible, if we’re talking about the reforms—judicial reforms—it’s possible to not be involved in, to be working of the prosecutor, of the working of the courts. And the second, honestly, if it’s—we can answer, if it’s existing right time for rule of law? I think not. I think rule of law must be exist in all period of time.

And what is the most important? You have to understand that if happened the aggressions from Russia to Ukraine, President Zelenskyy have to be apply to the nation, and have to very hard obligation. And he’s a responsible person. He not sended—because how it’s happened in the past time that some politics in Ukraine sended their children abroad for education and sended a lot of thousand children, yes, to protect our country. But you must understand it’s a hard obligation. It’s very difficult to just imagine to be in the place of the presidents in that period of time. But if it’s happened, it’s necessary to answer and to be very proper with our nation.

I can tell for you that the rule of law, the principle of rule of law, it’s one of the priority of the President Zelenskyy and our team. And of course, I’d like to think that it’s necessary to keep out of any manipulations around exactly this case and be very deep understand and check exactly the facts what happened. But believe me, that once again the rule of law, it’s one of the most important principle of us, of all the team.

JOHN E. HERBST: Thank you for that. There’s also—you mentioned the de-oligarchicization law. there’s also concern that under that law major media, which currently is under control of, you know, the oligarchs, might wind up controlled by the governments. What do you say to that?

ANDRIY YERMAK: I’d like to say, once again, that this law, it’s not against somebody personally. If attentively you can read this law, there is not any phrases that it’s just the potentially existing risks to press or the freedom media, or to be involved in and to take and to change the principle of the private property. I can say that this law give the frame, the first steps, to breaking the corrupt oligarchic system. It’s law against the people who buy the politic, who buy deputy, who try using their money to control some political decisions in the country; against who are not working to support and to develop the freedom of media but try to use the media like weapons, once again, to control and to make—to press to make some political decisions. We will be happy if in six months in the list of potential oligarch will be zero person. It will be excellent result.

Excellent results for our country because, you understand, it’s not very good that we have the images. A lot of time we listen that your problems, it’s oligarchs. Your problem it’s oligarch system. We wanted that the images of my country will be connected with the words of the oligarchs. It means that we support business, we support legal business, big business. But we wanted that I think this fightings—the history of this fighting has all the countries. And of course, just now we’re working—the parliament working with the law which will be regulated in the future this area. It will be law antitrust. It will be anti-dumping law. It will be law of the legal lobbyism and many others. Now we—the president created the frame law as a first step.

JOHN E. HERBST: Thank you. Let’s bridge this issue and the security side. You referred to the action you took—

ANDRIY YERMAK: I’m sorry, John. I’m sorry. I’m sorry, John.

JOHN E. HERBST: Please, go ahead.

ANDRIY YERMAK: If I could add to my previous questions. I need to mention concerning the former president of Ukraine. I think that, you know, that a lot of people in our country in the situation of war have the opportunity to check the—some tapes of Mr. Medvedchuk, who is known he has very close ties to the Russia, and his role during all this period of time. In these tapes is—was mentioned a lot of people. It’s why then we are receiving the—from our partners the signal and concerns about the potential aggression, it was two part. First of all, it’s potential military aggression. And the second, it’s using by pro-Russian forces and to make some destabilization in the country. And this is very important, that the power how absolutely transparent relations and transparent positions.

But believe me that today I said, once again, really high-level united of Ukrainian society, united around the presidents, around the power. Plus, during eight years, Ukrainians so free, so independent, and so smart that all these people understand what is right, what is wrong, and what is true. And our obligations to be very—because in some critical moments of the nations I think it’s obligation to the leaders to be very open and very honest—100 percent. Because people have to go and to defend our country. And we can’t close, not just in the case against somebody. It’s including the people in our team. One of these principles, to give the people the faith and to go forward, to believe, and to trust. Thank you. And I’m sorry that I interrupted you.

JOHN E. HERBST: No, no. That’s good. In fact, what you just said is a nice lead-in to the question I was about to ask. The strong steps that Ukraine took against Medvedchuk over a year ago made Moscow deeply unhappy. Were they in diplomatic channels in touch with you about that, demanding better treatment, different treatment for Medvedchuk? Has this in any way factored, in your judgement, in their attitude towards President Zelenskyy and your team?

ANDRIY YERMAK: Yes. Yes, it’s—I understand. And yes. And it’s absolutely true. And, you know, during the long period of time the people don’t believe that it’s possible to happen, because it was—you know, it’s a very strong support. And this, for instance, was very connected to the power in the previous year. And of course, the people—just the people in western Ukraine—they was happy. The ordinary people, they started to believe and started to trust. Because, you know, it’s—for us, especially for the President Zelenskyy, for him the life of each person, it’s a very, very important. For him, it’s priority.

And of course, you know, that you have so big tragedy that we have lost more than 14,000 of our people. It’s necessary that their family, their parents be sure that their children defended the country and nobody in this country to—in the same time to make any proper things, because it’s the life of the people. I mean, I think it’s the most important priority. You see, it’s the questions. It’s very philosophical questions of the truth. Because, one, if the nations feel the truth, they are strong. And this is connected for all these things.

But you can remember some part of this—of the pro-Russian society, because they are supported a lot, how they started and tried to criticize about the TV channels with 100 percent was the Russian propaganda. And of course, if just there is something, it’s necessary of the connections of the sound politics in that period of time. It’s necessary investigative. It’s necessary to show that anybody in the country is at the goal of reforms, that anybody will be not higher than law, starting from president.

I think it’s important. I think it’s a very strong signal just for Ukrainian society. And you can ask—you just—you know, the best judge, if you go to the streets of Kyiv, of any city, and you can ask people what they are thinking about. And you receive the very interesting counsel.

JOHN E. HERBST: OK. You mentioned, properly, that Ukraine has to deal with both the possibility of a conventional attack from Moscow, but also efforts to undermine your society. My view is that Russia’s threatening a major invasion now because their current hybrid war in Donbas is a failure. It has not changed Ukraine’s policy. My sense also is that Ukraine has done a pretty good job, going back at least to 2015, in dealing with efforts by Moscow to undermine Ukrainian society. OK. So having said that, is it your judgment that you have pretty good control over Russian efforts to undermine Ukrainian society from within? That’s certainly my impression.

ANDRIY YERMAK: My opinion that we are more strongest. Where and why we are more strongest? We have a second sense because from the leader of the nation, from the president, we have absolutely 100 percent strong and principled positions, we have absolutely another army, and we have the absolutely another temperature in the society.

I said in the beginning that I’m sure that the majority of our people without any application will be ready to go to defend our country. I think it’s a lot of change from the spirit of that.

And we have, I think, more strongest support of our partners during all the history of independence. I think that, you know, it’s now happened historical things. Now our relationship with United States, with Great Britain, with Turkey, with France, with a lot of—with Canada, it’s really we started be real strategic partners—not just the words; in reality.

JOHN E. HERBST: Well, that’s certainly true, and my understanding is that the US military has learned a lot about how Russia fights through their cooperation with you, and that’s important.

All right. We’re coming to the end of our session. Let me ask you, how do you see the current standoff right now with Russia ending? You have to be ready for everything. I have colleagues who say Moscow has to send troops into Ukraine. I remain skeptical that they have to. I think that there’s probably—they’ll find a way not to do that. But your thoughts on this, if you’re willing to share them?

ANDRIY YERMAK: I understand. You see, it’s impossible to understand what in the head of another person, especially in this kind of a person. It’s, I think—you see, I think it’s a big geopolitics questions. And of course, I think it’s historical—in any way, it’s historical and critical moment not just for Ukraine; for whole Europe. And I think it’s necessary to have a very big patience, to be very smart, and—because nobody know what will be result of everything which happen.

But I can say that eight year of the war—of the war, and our situations give to us the force and this necessary situation and conditions to follow a right way for our country. We are—you know, sometimes then just the person take through some circumstances in the life. Somebody lose. Somebody lose the dream. Somebody lose the faith. And somebody started be strong, found some potential, found—started be very smart, have the able to use 1 percent of the opportunity.

I think you create the second case, and I absolutely sure that our strong nation—I can share with you, John, very honest. I born in Ukraine. I born in Kyiv. I traveled a lot before this job, but this job gives me opportunity to traveling very often and now I traveling just very small towns, some places where I never be in Ukraine.

And, believe me, just me as a citizen of Ukraine, I never can imagine how beautiful this country, how rich this country, what extraordinary people we have. I never—honestly, I never just can imagine to just believe. One case it’s to talk about it and another to feel by all my heart. And I’m now absolutely sure that we have great future. Difficult time borne real here. Difficult times borne real strong and very successful relations.

I absolutely sure that it’s not accidental that we have so strong biography, so difficult biography, and so many change. You can understand during the—just 50 percent of the terms of President Zelenskyy. Some presidents didn’t receive during two terms with just 50 percent of the first terms. It’s mean that I—it’s difficult. Now it’s dangerous time. But we are together with our partners. We are together by all Ukrainian nations. Ukrainian nations support the president and our people, our young team, it started be more—during this period of time started very quickly, very professional, and where we to be able to answer to all—any challenges.


ANDRIY YERMAK: I have—I have very positive feelings—


ANDRIY YERMAK:—just in this critical moment.

JOHN E. HERBST: That’s an eloquent statement. I will ask you one more question, which you may not want to answer. But if you do, that’s great. You referred to your idea for a trilateral summit—Zelenskyy, Putin, Biden. What do you hope to achieve from this summit if the parties agree?

ANDRIY YERMAK: We think that the leader—the chief, you mean, who will be the—can you explain your questions, please?

JOHN E. HERBST: Sure. Look, you see some advantage in having a meeting, Zelenskyy alongside of Biden alongside of Putin. So my questions for you, how do you think this could lead to a breakthrough to end the war in Donbass?

ANDRIY YERMAK: I think that it can be one of the platforms—potential platforms—which can give the advance—the settlement of the war in Donbas. Yes, I think so, because I believe in leadership of the United States and I think that it’s very correspondent to that I mentioned before, that in any formats which start to discuss in the level between the United States and Russia, NATO-Russia, OSCE-Russia, in all these platforms must be participated Ukraine. And it’s absolutely logical if in negotiations between Russia and the United States, in any case, discuss Ukrainian case it will be more effective that Ukraine will be participated in each. It’s why I base my proposals and my idea about this.

JOHN E. HERBST: OK. Thank you very much for a very broad, broad conversation.

And thank you to our audience for tuning in. We’ll be doing more—a lot more on this problem of Russia massing troops along Ukraine’s border in the weeks to come.

So, Mr. Yermak, again, it’s a pleasure to host you.

ANDRIY YERMAK: Thank you very much, John. Thank you. Thank you for everybody. Thank you for who is listen us, and for me it was a big pleasure to be with you. Thank you.

JOHN E. HERBST: And your English is getting very good.

ANDRIY YERMAK: And thank you for your support and thank you for your attention to my country. Thank you.

JOHN E. HERBST: Do pobachenn’a. Do pobachenn’a.

ANDRIY YERMAK: Do pobachenn’a.

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Further reading

Image: Head of the Office of the President of Ukraine Andriy Yermak and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba at the start of an EU-Ukraine Summit at the European Council in Brussels, Belgium, on October 6, 2020. Photo via Stephanie Lecocq/Pool via REUTERS