Then Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych gives news conference in Kyiv, Ukraine on April 04, 2022. Photo by Ukrainian Presidency/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)


January 15, 2024   18 mins

At the start of the war in Ukraine, Oleksiy Arestovych was the spokesman for President Zelenskyy and one of the most recognisable faces on Ukrainian TV. His nightly briefings on the status of the war earned him the nickname the ‘therapist-in-chief’ and at one point his approval ratings were second only to the President. Since then, he has become a fierce critic of the Zelenskyy administration and has left the country to avoid multiple prosecutions. Now he plans to run for president against Zelenskyy at the next election.

In his first Western media interview since his fall-out with the Government, he spoke from the United States to Freddie Sayers. This is an edited transcript. The English has been improved for readability.

 

Freddie Sayers: In the past 18 months you’ve turned from being President Zelenskyy’s spokesman into one of his fiercest critics. What changed?

Oleksiy Arestovych: I’m not so much a critic of President Zelenskyy himself, I criticise the Ukrainian system — a corrupt system, which, if it doesn’t change, means we can’t win this war. I am not in a personal war with President Zelenskyy; I’m criticising the system and his politics.

FS: Did you have more confidence in the system when you were speaking for President Zelenskyy’s government?

OA: I was the spokesperson of the Office of the President, not of the government, but yes. The main motivation for me when the war started was to hold our people together, not to be afraid of this invasion and to hold strong for victory. That’s still my motivation. But I’m a military professional and I have fought for more than two years in this war. I understand what we have to do to win this war.

You have to look at what Mr. Putin is doing now. There are four principle strategic decisions he has taken over the past year and a half which have given him superiority over the Ukrainian position.

First of all, he managed to change the frame of this war from a Russian-Ukrainian war into a war between the global South and the global West. We can see how Brics organisations have multiplied since and Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Iran and other countries are coming together into a so-called “anti-Western bloc”. This changes the frame and gives them diplomatic and political abilities they didn’t have at the beginning of the war, when the whole world condemned this invasion.

Second, Putin managed to avoid a lot of the sanctions because of this change in frame, which has, thirdly, enabled him to multiply the production of his military industry. We used to speak about how Russia would have insufficient means to produce the cruise missiles which they use to strike Ukraine, but they have since managed to produce them. They have a system of avoiding sanctions which works very well.

The fourth strategic decision was to motivate the Russian people to get involved in the war. Fourteen thousand Russian recruits arrive every month to the recruiting centres and Putin now doesn’t need conscription. This is completely different from the Ukrainian situation. We are trying to recruit half a million personnel, but we face serious problems in terms of motivation.

FS: Do you believe that those four things mean that Russia and Putin are in a different position now to when you were working for Zelenskyy?

OA: Absolutely. They are now in a much better position than when the war started. They have changed their group of allies, building links using an anti-colonial narrative to the Global South. This has been very successful. For us, for me, for Ukraine, why I criticise Mr. Zelensky’s policy and our system, mostly it is on these last two points: the motivation for our people to fight, and the military-industrial production. We obviously can’t compare it with Russia, because it’s a huge country with a lot of resources. But we are not doing what we can.

FS: What happens next if there is no change to the system, as you call it? Do you think Russia will make further territorial gains inside Ukraine?

OA: I don’t think the most dangerous thing is losing more territory; the most dangerous thing is losing Western support. Right now, the United States is too deeply involved in Ukrainian military and financial decisions. This a very, very dangerous and non-stable position because Americans, both Democrats and Republicans, have a big ideological conflict about the Ukrainian question which is linked to the coming Presidential election. The question of Ukrainian assistance is very fragile.

FS: What happens to Ukraine if American support falls away, either through a change of administration or because the current administration loses enthusiasm?

OA: The stopping of financial aid would mean we lose macro-economic stability. It would endanger social payments and pensions and the provision of social aid for our people. We have insufficient gold and currency deposits in our National Bank — we could face massive inflation. And on the frontline, it would mean we start to lose territory because Russians still have superiority in artillery shells, rockets, personnel, armoured tanks. We would face two forces against the building of a Ukrainian state: interior problems and Russian aggression. It’s a very dangerous situation.

FS: So you think of it as a twin threat, then: internal fragility, maybe economic turmoil, people not getting their support payments, leading eventually to territorial losses as well?

OA: Absolutely. And if we’re thinking politically, it means the legacy of the legitimacy of President Zelenskyy and his political party will start to come into doubt. It’s another dangerous step. Because in a war, the government has to make unpopular decisions such as conscription, financial cuts, and so on. And it is possible when you have great legitimacy. But if you have low legitimacy, it’s very difficult to execute on even popular decisions.

FS: At some point, the level of financial support that is being provided to Ukraine cannot go on forever — I think most people would agree with that. So what is your long term solution, instead of just trying to get the Americans to extend their support and extend it again? What does a good long-term settlement look like?

OA: For me, one of the main mistakes of President Zelenskyy was to appeal to the West using an emotional argument. We will have to change this policy. We have to place a calculator between us and the collective West and start to think: what are the real profit calculations? For the United States, it’s mostly the titanium industry and lithium industry, which they were very interested in within Ukraine, but I see nothing of that. We have to start to be interesting to the West, not just in terms of values and ideas and democracy, but material profit. What could the West gain from a partnership between Ukraine and the West? I mean industry. I mean agriculture. We have to calculate what we could do to make real profit for the collective West.

It’s not only the West — there are states in Eastern Europe like Poland, the Czech Republic and Romania which completely understand what this Russian invasion means. They have the same history and the same understanding as Ukraine. We don’t cooperate enough in terms of production or military equipment with these near neighbours. We have a customs conflict with Poland, over grain, and we have made a lot of mistakes, problemetising our partnership with our nearest neighbours. So a policy of emotions has to be changed to a policy of mutual profit and good sense.

FS: Let’s turn to internal Ukrainian politics. You mentioned mobilisation or conscription, the question of where the fighters are going to come from. How many more troops are needed? And where are they going to come from?

OA: On troops, the problem is our organisation. When I was in office, I heard them say that four and a half million men, around half of the whole fighting age male population of Ukraine, had avoided registering at the recruitment centre, not for recruitment purposes but to check their personal data. This is proof that the way in which we motivate our people for the war is not successful.

Now we are trying to recruit half a million troops using mostly a repressive campaign, not positive motivation. I was one of the public figures who started to ring the bell on this question — we have to present a positive motivation to take arms. We should talk about principle. It has to be man-centric, human-centric. The recruitment has to be about how one person can change his fate by getting into the war. He has to be well-recruited, well-selected, well-trained and well-used on the frontline, because our army in a lot of aspects is still an old Soviet army, which thinks about personnel as the Russians do: people to go forward and die. For us it’s a completely unsuitable approach, because we have a lot less people than Russia. The person who gets into the army has to understand that he will be selected, trained and used in the most profitable way and his family will be completely defended from problems if he dies or is missing in action or is wounded.

FS: So you think that, if incoming recruits felt more confident that they would be used efficiently and felt that the military leadership was more competent, and also that there were greater advantages including an increase in money for families in case of difficulty, recruitment would be higher?

OA: Absolutely. Every Ukrainian has relatives in the armed forces so they completely understand what is going on.

FS: One thing which Ukrainians watching back home may well ask is: why are you not at the front? You’re in America right now. They might say: it’s all very well for him to encourage people to go and fight but he’s not?

OA: I have some criminal investigations against me in Ukraine. In one of my seminars which I was conducting for my online school, when I was talking about men and women’s relationships, I imitated the actions of stupid men who do not like women. And Inna Sovsun, the MP who you had before on this channel, reported me to the national police for criminal investigation by cutting out one sentence I had made in this seminar to claim that “Arestovych is completely against women”. [For further details of the controversy, see this report.] After that they collected 29 members of parliament to say that Arestovych has to be arrested immediately when he returns to Ukraine. And the secretary of our security council says that Arestovych is a Russian spy and has to be arrested by the Security Service of Ukraine when returns to Ukraine. I think it’s a completely political persecution.

FS: Just to be clear: to those people who do say you have connections to Russia or you’re in some way sympathetic to the Russian side, you have no contact with anyone inside the Russian Federation?

OA: Nobody, only members of the Russian opposition here in the West. I’m not a Russian sympathiser, I just want Ukraine to be a European nation with a European army. When I was in office, I was the first person who said there should not be any torture for Russian prisoners of war. We have to fight a European-type war, we have to be a European nation, a European army. A lot of people who felt emotional trauma from the war, and some politicians from Ukraine who tried to create a policy of hate and emotional trauma from the war, tried to say Arestovych is pro-Russian, which is completely stupid. I fought the Russians for more than two years on the frontline. Could you imagine a Russian spy who would fight against Russian troops on the frontline?

It’s difficult for me. I want to be in my country and with my people. But I can’t come back to Ukraine because of this. They have two criminal investigations against me right now.

FS: You have made specific criticisms of Zelenskyy’s war strategy, for example that too much was invested in the defence of Bakhmut. Do you think retaking Crimea should be a goal of the Ukrainian government?

OA: It’s a more profitable goal than liberating Donbas. Donbas is close to Russian regions, has been 10 years under Russian occupation, and there is an entire generation which has never lived in Ukraine. It’s like a nation in Great Britain, such as Northern Ireland. For Crimea, it’s a question of our stability in the Black Sea region. It’s a question of export and import, which is very important for the Ukrainian economy. So Crimea could be and maybe must be a goal of this conflict — not Crimea itself, but stability in the Black Sea region, which Russians try to dominate, seeking to cut our export and import supply lines.

FS: Are you suggesting that it would be okay to cede the Donbas to Russia?

OA: I think if we get into realistic policy, we have to say there’s no way to liberate Donbas. Maybe in five or 10 years, even in Crimea, it could be possible. But the only goal we can have right now is not to give Russia more territory inside Ukraine, and to force Russia to give up this military way of dealing with Ukraine. My main idea is that we don’t need Russian-Ukrainian negotiation, we need negotiation regarding all of Eastern Europe’s security. It could be multiple negotiations. We have to make a new system of security in Europe, because the previous Potsdam/Yalta so-called system, which was created in 1945, does not work at all.

FS: So you would not support negotiations between Ukraine and Russia?

OA: It’s absolutely impossible. It’s very stupid to speak about this negotiation. We have to negotiate for an all-new security system for Europe, taking into account all sides of this problem. Russia does not feel itself to be secure. And we can laugh about this, and say that we never had an aggressive approach towards Russia, but Russians think so. And they are ready to kill for this security question. So we need a huge negotiation, with both sides, all Nato members, all EU neighbours, all natural states which are interested in the security in Europe, to create a new so-called Potsdam/Yalta system, because the alternative will be 10 or 15 years of war.

FS: Does that mean that you think that Nato needs to be replaced with a new system?

OA: I think Nato has to discuss with Russia and Belorussia what it would take to guarantee not to use military force in Europe to decide political questions. And to create a new system to decide on our political equations that avoids military power being wielded in the centre of Europe. I should perhaps add that I am absolutely pessimistic that this will happen. I think we face 10 or 15 years of war in Europe. Because the opposition we have right now are very huge and cannot be decided by negotiations. But for me, for my conscience, I have to be a person who talked about this idea openly. So when I am older, at the end of my life, I could say that I was a person who provided the idea of a new system of collective security in Europe, instead of 10 more years of war.

FS: This idea that you want to be remembered for, what is it exactly? Is it a specifically Eastern European treaty of some kind involving Poland and Baltic countries and all of the countries that border Russia?

OA: It has to be all actors: Great Britain, Germany, France, United States, all of Nato and all EU members and UN members. And then Russia and China, Iran, the so-called “axis of evil” must be involved. What we really need is a new system of collective defence in the world — but at least in Eastern Europe. But I don’t think we have the political vision and political ability to make that system right now. I think we face a war — and Ukraine will not be the only country to fall in this war — in the next 10 years.

FS: Do you think that bilateral negotiations between Ukraine and Russia could have worked earlier in the process? There has been a lot of discussion around those early months, when there were negotiations in Istanbul.

OA: Yeah, I was a member of the Istanbul process, and it was the most profitable agreement we could have done. They concluded there two previous agreements that were extremely dangerous for Ukraine: Minsk one and Minsk two. This agreement even contained the question of Crimea. It took 10 years of discussion, 15 years of discussion on the status of Crimea, and it meant security for the Black Sea. But now — I don’t know. Because mid-agreement in Istanbul we came to Kiev and after Bucha we heard from the President that we had stopped the negotiations. The next meeting was to be on the ninth of April and on the second of April it was declined.

FS: So you came back from Istanbul thinking the negotiations had been successful?

OA: Yes, completely. We opened the champagne bottle. We had discussed demilitarisation, denazification, issues concerning the Russian language, Russian church and much else. And that month, it was the question of the amount of Ukrainian armed forces in peacetime and President Zelenskyy said, “I could decide this question indirectly with Mr. Putin”. The Istanbul agreements were a protocol of intentions and was 90% prepared for directly meeting with Putin. That was to be the next step of negotiations.

FS: What was the sequence and how did Bucha derail that process?

OA: I really do not know. The President was shocked about Bucha. All of us were shocked about Bucha. I was in Bucha on the second day when the Russian forces were repelled. Zelenskyy completely changed face when he came into Bucha and saw what had happened. A lot of people say it was the  Prime Minister Boris Johnson who came to Kiev and put a stop to this negotiation with Russia. I don’t know exactly if that is true or false. He came to Kiev but nobody knows what they spoke about except, I think, Zelenskyy and Boris Johnson himself.

I think it was the second of April, and I was in Bucha the next day. The President got in one day later, so it could have been the fourth of April, and the next meeting was to be on ninth of April. So something happened in those five days. But the members of the negotiations group stopped any negotiations. When we asked how it could be restarted, the President said, “somewhere, sometime, but not now”.

FS: So something changed Zelenskyy’s mind?

OA: Yes, absolutely. And historians will have to find an answer to what happened.

FS: But do you think Russia was even sincere? Would they even have stuck to that negotiated settlement?

OA: The Russians showed their readiness for continuing the negotiations, and we declined. But now, after two years, I think it would be unreal to make an agreement this time. Putin has changed this Russian-Ukrainian war into an anti-colonial war, the Global South against the global West. And the systemic oppositions between West and South are so huge. It includes the question of the Israeli-Palestinian war, the question of Taiwan. It could not be solved by an agreement between Ukraine and Russia. It needs to take place at a much higher level.

FS: Do you see it as a World War?

OA: I think it’s a World War. It looks to me like the Thirty Years’ War in the 17th century. For me, the modern age started at this time. So for me it’s now, philosophically speaking, the end of the modern era. The modern era started with the Thirty Years’ War, and it will take another Thirty Years’ War to end it.

FS: What do you mean by it being the end of the modern era?

OA:  The modern period of development is ending. What is modernity? For me, modernity is a huge factory. It’s to get all systems — like education, like healthcare, like the military industry, or like the market — like huge factories. But there are new scientific and technical achievements, like AI, things like that, which are starting to blow up this factory conception. The signs suggest there’s no way to standardise the world itself, because world is too various.

FS: You’re saying that the project of standardising the world, making everyone similar, is coming to an end?

OA: Yes, it’s coming to an end. The world is much more various than standard. And what is the main tension from the Global South to the global West? You can’t standardise us, we are completely different from you. We are asking for the right to be different. Some traditions are not for us, and we are ready to go to war even, ready to fight with you to have the right to be different.

FS: So you see it as people defending their cultures being different from each other?

OA: Not only culture — the way of making policy, the way of doing any human practice. The potential for another modus vivendi, another modus operandi. And they are ready for open war to achieve this.

FS: That reminded me a little bit of someone I know you were interested in, in the past: Aleksandr Dugin. I know you attended a conference with him, back in the day when you were associated with the Bratsvo far-Right party. Dugin has a big idea about Eurasia and wars of civilisations. Do you still have sympathy with his world view?

OA: I never had sympathy with Dugin. Because I was an officer of military intelligence in Ukraine and doing my military duty in Moscow, I was sitting with Dugin in one conference. But I have my own philosophical background. And we can see on the frontline Right now that some cultures — Russian political culture, China’s political culture, Syrian, Iranian — is completely against the way we do policy in the last 300 years. This is a problem we can see now in material ways: in the missiles, which are landing on the heads of Russian and Ukrainian children. This is the main sign, not what Dugin says.

FS: You believe that cultures, like Russia, like Iran, are so different from the West, that they’re now prepared to fight for their differences?

OA: They are starting to fight against the system which has been established in the world for the previous 300 years. First of all, is the so-called Westphalian peace agreement. And they are fighting against this main principle of the system.

FS: What about Ukraine in this new world order? Does it belong with the West? Or does it belong with the non-Western group?

OA: My main idea is that Ukraine could still find itself. The main question is what we’re living and dying for. And Ukraine, as a society and a culture, has a huge number of answers to this question. We are completely different. The main problem of Ukraine is that some politicians starting in 1991 to transform Ukraine from a poly-cultural and poly-national state, into a more mono-ethnic and mono-cultural country, like most of European countries like Poland. But it means the loss of territory that is completely different — Russian speaking territory, for example, in the East of Ukraine and the South of Ukraine. And a lot of Ukrainians, these 4.5 million Ukrainians who didn’t want to be recruited by the state, they didn’t want to be recruited for this political idea. This was not a problem of social contract, about good pensions for retired military security or anything, it is question of the future of Ukraine. I think a lot of Ukrainians do not be want to be part of a project of a mononation.

FS: Do you think Ukraine should be one nation?

OA: No, I don’t. I think Ukraine has to be one political nation but poly-ethnic and poly-cultural. Because if we want to hold Ukraine in its 1991 borders, even officially we have 58 nationalities here in Ukraine. Unofficially it’s more than 100: a lot of languages, a lot of different cultures, a lot of different histories, of regions. Ukrainian is a state which was created from the parts of great empires — Austro Hungarian, German, Polish and Russian — and we have absolutely different traditions. You can imagine, because for Great Britain it is easy to understand. It’s like Wales, Scotland, Ireland.

FS: So you think it should be more of a federation?

OA: I don’t know exactly how it should be formed, politically or legally, but in fact in a philosophical way we are a federation. Because the South of Ukraine is completely different to the North of Ukraine, the East of Ukraine is completely different than the West of Ukraine. And even neighbouring regions in Ukraine have different wedding traditions etc.

FS: So why should it try to be one country, in that case?

OA: This is the question. Now we practically can’t answer this question when we see the problem of recruitment. This problem of mobilisation throws light on all of our very deep philosophical and historical problems. People are not refusing to join the army because of the dangers of wounds or death, but because they do not understand the answer to the question: why do we have to be one country? Why do we have to be one state? For what reason do we need a Ukrainian state? A lot of them say the Ukrainian state gives me the ability to get out the Ukrainian passport and get into Europe or another country. This is the main superiority of Putin. Russian recruits know for what they fight: they fight for Great Russia.

FS: So you don’t believe that there is a much stronger Ukrainian nationalism now than there was two years ago? Because by report, the fact of the invasion has brought Ukrainian people together. You’re saying that has not happened?

OA: Ukrainian nationalism is the idea of less than 20% of Ukrainians. This is the problem.

FS: What about the remaining 80%?

OA: I think for most of them, their idea is of a multinational and poly-cultural country. And when Zelenskyy came into power in 2019, they voted for this idea. He did not articulate it specifically but it was what he meant when he said, “I don’t see a difference in the Ukrainian-Russian language conflict, we are all Ukrainians even if we speak different languages.” And you know, my great criticism of what has happened in Ukraine over the last year, during the emotional trauma of the war, is this idea of Ukrainian nationalism which has divided Ukraine into different people: the Ukrainian speakers and Russian speakers as a second class of people. It’s the main dangerous idea and a worse danger than Russian military aggression, because nobody from this 80% of people wants to die for a system in which they are people of a second class.

FS: You’re planning to run to be President of Ukraine. How can you run for President if you don’t believe it holds together as a country?

OA: Because I have an idea, I call it the Fifth Project, which could unite the country back. And it’s a completely specific political programme, which is well-known in Ukraine. We have had four political projects in Ukraine: Russian, Soviet, nationalist and euro-integration projects. My idea is to collect the best from all four projects and recreate a so-called Fifth Project, the main idea of which is to unite Ukrainians, to recognise all Ukrainians in our history, in our modernity, in our in our future. Ukrainians, whatever the way they live, whatever they language they speak, and whatever they call their culture, and tradition or religion. It looks like the United States of Ukraine.

FS: Having heard what you said about the differences in Ukraine and the Russian speaking part and the West being so different, is the so called “Kissinger solution” where there is a some kind of settlement with Russia and Russia takes certain provinces there is a some form of peace deal, does that look attractive?

OA: I don’t think so. For me, the price for Ukraine to get into Nato is a big war with Russia, as I said in 2019, openly, it was in our media. I think the price for the West to get Ukraine inside Nato is a big war with Russia and the collective West are not ready to pay this price. This is a problem. And for me it’s completely unrealistic for Ukraine to even hope to be a part of the European Union or Nato. It’s impossible in this real-life situation.

FS: And yet you don’t want it to be part of Russia either.

OA: No, I completely and very strongly stand on the position of an independent Ukraine. But this independent Ukraine, for me, has to go the way of Israel or South Korea. Not part of Russia. In no way will it be part of Russia, and if we have to be realistic, not part of Natoeither. It has to be a naturalised country, strong, with a deep relationship with the collective West, because we are a European nation historically. But now it’s completely unrealistic. Not from our side, from the West’s side.

FS: So your vision is for Ukraine to be neither part of Russia nor part of the EU or Nato, and to have a special status as a border-land country that contains many different peoples within in.

OA: Yes, and if we are effective and clever, we could use to our great advantage — such as  infrastructure and logistic corridors, like a multicultural transformers that could understand both sides, Europe and Russia and the Asian countries. But we have to be ambitious to get into this role. We could play, I think, a very important role in the security, logistics and stability of Eastern Europe first of all. And for this, there could be perspective aid for all Ukrainian foreign policy. But the foreign policy is completely a mirror of in interior policy, so we have to change inside ourselves before we get into this type of idea for Europe.

FS: My final question is: if you do get back to Ukraine, and if there is an election, and if you’re allowed to run in it, do you think there’s any chance you’ll win?

OA: I don’t know. But I have to give a chance to people who believe in it.

 

 


is the Editor-in-Chief & CEO of UnHerd. He was previously Editor-in-Chief of YouGov, and founder of PoliticsHome.

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