Zelenskyy advisor Mykhailo Podolyak: “This winter will be decisive for the war”

Mykhailo Podolyak has been a key advisor to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy since 2020. We spoke to him about the current military situation in Ukraine.

A bombed house in Borodianka, Kyiv Oblast.
A bombed house in Borodianka, Kyiv Oblast.picture alliance/dpa/ZUMA Press Wire

Across Germany, everyone is asking how the war in Ukraine can be ended. Are arms deliveries the right way for Ukraine to win and bring Putin down? Or would this risk an escalation of the conflict? The Berliner Zeitung is closely following and participating in this debate, and has now discussed these questions in an interview with Mykhailo Podolyak, one of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s closest advisors. His position is clear: only a militarily strong Ukraine can win the war, topple Putin and bring peace to Europe. Below is the English translation of the interview, conducted by Alexander Dubovy, which is also available in GermanUkrainian and Russian.

What is the current situation in Kyiv and Ukraine as a whole, especially in light of Russia's intense attacks on civilian objects as well as civilian critical infrastructure over the past two weeks?

Russia is firing a significant number of cruise missiles and kamikaze drones at Ukraine every day. As a result, Ukrainians have become accustomed to living in a state of constant unrest over the past eight months. But although the situation is tense, it remains under control. On October 10th, Russia carried out its most massive attack on Ukraine since the beginning of the current phase of the war, firing more than 100 cruise missiles and kamikaze drones. Moscow, which is barely in a position to win the war on the battlefield, continues to terrorise civilians and bomb our cities, especially in eastern and southern Ukraine. We have long understood that we have to see a war of this intensity through to the end.

How long will the current phase of the war last?

That is a good question. I too would very much like to know the exact date of the end of the war. But in all seriousness, there are three parameters that determine the duration of this war. First, the consensus between society and the army, as outlined by the President of Ukraine, is fundamental. At the heart of this consensus is the conviction that this war must be properly ended by Ukraine. This is not a temporary ceasefire or a new line of contact. The war can only end with the full restoration of Ukraine's internationally recognised borders from 1991. Secondly, the amount of military aid we receive from partner countries, including Germany, remains crucial. First of all, we need missiles with a certain range that will make it possible to destroy the logistics of the Russian army and thus dramatically accelerate the process of pushing Russia back from our territory. And thirdly, there needs to be an understanding in the West that Russia not only could lose this war, but must lose it. Although I am constantly talking about this with our partners, I have unfortunately not yet succeeded in convincing them of this. In fact, this is probably the most important parameter. Only Russia's military defeat will initiate the transformation process within the Russian Federation, significantly reducing Russia's blackmailing pressure. Because the blackmailing pressure is directed both at Ukraine and at the West as a whole, particularly at Europe. Be it in the field of energy, be it in the field of migration or, for example, in the question of influencing political processes in the West.

Nevertheless, what period of time are you talking about?

A few months. We are definitely not talking about years. It is all the more important that our partners in Europe realise this. Winter is coming. The upcoming truly hard winter will be decisive because we have two wars to bring to an appropriate end at the same time. The first war is the hot war in Ukraine; the second war is the energy war that Russia has been preparing for a long time and is now waging against the European Union.

Do you think it is possible that after a transformation process in Russia, an even more aggressive, radical leadership could come to power that would be ready to use nuclear weapons?

No. Let's take a look at the psychology of social developments in Russia. Russia will never build a fully fledged democracy. This is important to understand. To my great regret, many countries in the 1990s euphorically assumed that there could be a fully fledged democracy in Russia. However, that is not the case. Russia will always remain a weak democracy with more or less pronounced authoritarian or even totalitarian elements, and the political system will be subject to the domination of one or another political group. Therefore, one should take this rather calmly. If the process of change in Russia started right away, radicals would come to power, but only for a short time.

Do you mean radical representatives of the so-called “Party of War” like Yevgeny Prigozhin, for example?

Yes, Prigozhin is one of its prominent representatives, who advocates the maximum involvement of criminals in the war against Ukraine. This is quite significant, because Russia always wages wars with mass armies. In his paramilitary organization, “Wagner Group”, he also uses detainees imprisoned for serious offences, in particular to intimidate the enemy. The representatives of the so-called “Party of War” could temporarily obtain prominent positions within the Russian political system. I do not mean to say that they will rise to become the leading elite group, but they could certainly occupy certain decision-making positions. However, it is important to note that these people are not, and I would like to emphasise this, interested in destroying Russia. Because they are in the process of making a career for themselves. So they only want to improve their own quality of life as well as their standard of living, and nothing else. They are also extremely unpopular in Russia, I would even call them toxic. Under Vladimir Putin, who over the past months and years has relied more and more on so-called ultra-patriotic forces, they have managed to gain some influence. They will certainly experience a very short high phase, receiving ministerial posts and the like. But that will all pass very quickly, because in my view, Russia's transformation will bring much more moderate and, to some extent, liberal political forces to power. Of course, this group is fragmented and structureless today, but it will still get a chance to come to power. After all, even in the early 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, partially liberal social groups were able to compete for political power.

Could you clarify this point? At the beginning, you said that the probability of Russia turning into a more or less democratic country with liberal elements is extremely low.

The question is not whether Russia can ever become a fully fledged democracy. But the so-called Russian system liberals, who currently exert only a rather limited influence on political processes, could, in the event of a destabilisation of the political system, gain the opportunity to influence political processes in Russia. Not only could they gain a certain influence, but they could also shape the government and the organs of representative power. This does not mean that Russia will become a fully fledged democracy. But it does mean that Russia will turn away from the chauvinist form of politics that currently characterises Vladimir Putin's entourage. In this way, Russia will become a more modern, more agreeable country. What I would like to emphasise to our European partners is the following: Mr. Putin's entourage today, as well as Mr. Putin himself, are completely incapable of negotiating, because in terms of their values, they are in a completely different dimension. For these people, values are determined by force, i.e., if one has power in one form or another, then one also has the right to dominate others. And in doing so, they are violating the foundations of modern international law and trying to return to the long-outdated concept of the right of the strongest. This group currently determines the destiny of the Russian Federation. Nevertheless, there are also liberal forces in Russia today. These are not democrats in our understanding either, but they are much more willing to negotiate.

But what will become of Vladimir Putin? After all, he will not give up his power voluntarily.

Today, Mr. Putin is gradually being pushed out of the political field. Even for the nationalist part of the population of the Russian Federation, he is no longer an unchallenged leading figure. Towards the end of the war, representatives of ultranationalist groups will determine the leadership around Putin and claim offices for themselves. But as soon as Russia begins to lose the war, namely at the moment Ukraine reaches its internationally recognised state borders, transformation processes will begin in Russia. I would even speak of revolutionary processes, which will lead to a change of elites, also in favour of the so-called system liberals.

The Russian leaders constantly claim that the truth is on their side. In this respect, they resemble Danila Bagrov, the main protagonist of the popular movie by Alexey Balabanov “Brat 2” [Brother 2] from 2000. Danila Bagrov was also convinced that power lies in the truth—the one who has the truth on his side is also stronger. In reality, however, the Russian leadership shows by all its actions that for them, true power lies exclusively in money. They think they are strong because they can buy everything and everyone. But if you can buy everything, why go to war?

You have just made a very interesting comment. It does seem extremely paradoxical. And that was the crucial mistake of the German ruling elite for many years. The Germans thought that if the Russian rulers were investing in their own comfort, if they were buying real estate in the West and amassing huge personal fortunes, then their truth was rooted in money. And that Russia's leadership would obviously try to build more loyal relations with other countries with the help of money.

So the Western elites had the hope that—as the Ukrainian band Undervud once sang—“dough” would ultimately “bring down evil”?

Exactly. Unfortunately, much of Europe has bought into this simple philosophy. Many European countries, including Germany, believed that Russia would build relations through trade, economic influence, and joint ventures. At worst, Moscow would try to buy influence on political opinion-forming processes in the West. A large part of the Western elite came to believe that this would be unpleasant but ultimately controllable. That it would, in any case, be possible to negotiate. In fact, Russia's elites always believed that money was also an instrument of repression. And so, at some point, they stopped trying to negotiate or buy consent and went directly to exerting pressure by force.

It's quite a remarkable Russian phenomenon.

It is a very important Russian phenomenon. Unfortunately, many overlook it when analysing the Russian Federation. The current Russian rulers see money as an essential element in the exercise of power. So when they spend a lot of money to set up joint ventures, for example, they automatically believe that they are also buying the right to dictate their demands from a position of power. And if their partners do not agree, Moscow goes directly to coercive measures.

And how did this particularity play out on the issue of repressive measures against Ukraine?

Russia thought: “We will use military force, everyone will be very scared and, in principle, in a day or two, everyone will be ready to accept the conditions of the Russian Federation.” But it did not work. Ukraine simply has a different attitude towards Russia. For us, Russian power is, in principle, irrelevant. From a historical perspective, we know that Ukraine has always wanted to become independent, both in the Tsarist and Soviet eras. This is especially true for the western and central parts of Ukraine. We are not Russia. Russian history is not Ukrainian history. After all, Russia invaded Ukraine because Moscow was convinced that everyone would say: “They are strong, they have money. Let's meet them halfway.” That was the paradigm. Now Russia is facing a phenomenon with which Moscow is not familiar. In the Russian Federation itself, the realisation is already beginning to take hold that, notwithstanding the initial fear immediately after the Russian invasion, by now no one seems to be afraid of Russia any more after eight months of war. And this feeling is unfamiliar for Russia.

So it turns out that Russia's familiar world view has faltered in the face of cognitive dissonance.

The fundamental myth, the basic spiritual brace that holds everything together in Russia is: “Everyone is afraid of us. Although we live in poverty, everyone is afraid of us because we are the Great Russia.” In Russia, there is a saying “we can repeat” [meaning the Soviet Union's victory against Nazism in World War II; editor's note]. For many years, many in Russia claimed to be able to reach Berlin within 48 hours with tanks, but now it turns out that Russia is not only unable to reach Berlin within 48 hours, but completely incapable of even taking Kyiv within 8 months. We are witnessing the collapse of the key Russian myth. Until now, Russia was convinced that it was the strongest power in the world; equal to the USA or even stronger in some respects. Now, Russia is slowly falling into apathy while at the same time looking for a new idea that would explain why this not very strong, not very rich, and not very comfortable raw materials supplier of a country even exists.

You are saying that more democratic, more liberal forces will come to power in Russia. Let's assume that this could be the case. But as we know, Russia does not develop in a linear way but rather in a cyclical way. What steps must be taken by the European Union, by the West in general, and by Ukraine to prevent a renewed conflict with Russia in the future?

This is, of course, a rather profound problem. Unfortunately, for the last 20 years, Europe and the West in general have been of the opinion that Russia is a country with great potential, big money, a strong army, and a significant military-industrial complex, and that, for these reasons, Moscow should be accommodated. Russia should be integrated into regional economic structures. Russia should be heard. Russia should be given a voice that does not correspond to Russia's importance in the world economy. It was said that this was the only way to prevent potential conflicts. Again, the mistake was not to give Russia a voice. But giving a voice without regard to Russia's actual influence on the world economy, world politics, global social and cultural relations, and so on. In other words, Russia was given far more rights than it was entitled to.

Russia's distancing from Europe and the West in general will prevent Moscow from building a pro-Russian shadow lobby in the future. For many years, there has been plenty of Russian shadow money flowing around, both around Western businesses and Western political parties. It has become a lucrative industry in which a great many people are involved, not even for ideological reasons but for monetary ones. They wanted to make money. When this industry is eliminated, Europe will be able to move onto a much more solid development path. And of course, Russia will lose the ability to generate negative phenomena for a long time: migration waves, food crises, energy conflicts. Consequently, Russia will also degenerate into a third-rate player in the Asian markets. There is simply no reason to constantly portray the Russian Federation as a leviathan, a monster of a country that can, may, and should influence everything. There is simply no reason to go along with Russian propaganda. For this reason, it is also psychologically extremely important that Russia loses this war. A military defeat will erase an important component of the Russian chauvinist doctrine—namely, confidence in its own strength—for a very long time. Russia will become fearful.

At the end of March, the negotiations seemed to be on the home straight. And you gave an interview to the Russian daily newspaper Kommersant at that time. You stated in it that the mood in the negotiations was quite constructive and that the parties were willing to listen to each other in principle.

That was indeed the case. There was a constructive proposal from our side to return to the borders of February 23rd, 2022. Russia did not like to hear this, but was ready to negotiate. However, Moscow still considered Crimea and ‘parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions’ as special cases to be negotiated separately.

Why did the negotiations fail?

There are several reasons. In March, several very important events happened that showed that the war was in fact not quite the kind of war Russia itself was talking about. In February and March, there was still no concerted and comprehensive support for Ukraine from the West. At that time, Ukraine was trying to wage an effective war against Russia on its own, protecting its borders and defending itself adequately. However, after Russia withdrew, we returned to the Kyiv region, found mass graves, and saw a very clear genocidal type of warfare on the part of the Russian Federation. Russia wanted to humiliate the Ukrainian nation in this way. They wanted to humiliate our state as such. They wanted to show that they could do anything with impunity: impose impossible rules on civilians in the occupied territories, mock people, torture, rape, kill. Accordingly, we realised that all the statements made by Russia in the negotiation process about demilitarisation, denazification, and the Russian language are irrelevant. Russia had in fact come to destroy Ukraine, and then we realised that Russia would never stop. We realised that there is and can be no possibility of compromise. We realised that Russia did not want a ceasefire but only an operational pause to adjust its actions, to correct the mistakes in the military-industrial complex and to try to influence public opinion in other states, especially in Europe. And after a pause, the next phase of the war would follow under completely different conditions. Because Russia will not stop until the concept of Ukrainian statehood is extinguished.

Today, Ukraine and Russia could hardly be more different. From every point of view, Russia is a barbaric part of civilisation. It is a civilisation with a camp mentality where human freedom is suppressed for the benefit of the collective, for the benefit of the state. We understood that very clearly. We will not give up our territories.

Our President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, has formulated our objectives very clearly. During the negotiations, we made only one demand to Russia—the withdrawal of Russian forces to the borders of February 23rd, 2022. Only after that was the negotiation process on the status of the occupied territories to begin. However, Russia did not want to withdraw its troops at all. Russia wanted to establish a new line of contact. Basically, there was no room for compromise. Finally, one last point. Unfortunately, our European partners do not understand Russia. They believe that Moscow wants serious negotiations. But that is not the case. As long as Russia is not losing, it will only seek dictatorial peace. And of course, any kind of ultimatum was, is, and will be completely unacceptable to us.

Is Ukraine ready for the resumption of the negotiation process?

Ukraine is ready for negotiations, that's for sure. In any case, the war will end with negotiations. The only question is when and under what conditions? We are fully aware that we are not at war with the Russian Federation on the territory of the Russian Federation. Because we are only conducting operations to liberate our territories. We believe that Ukraine must liberate its territories because the existence of a Russian enclave would only mean a postponed war.

What you said also applies to the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, which was occupied in 2014, right?

Correct. The current phase of the war began partly because Moscow hoped to establish Crimea's legal status through it. To put it simply, Russia attacked Ukraine, occupied part of the territories, and wanted to establish this occupation in legal terms. For Ukraine, this is unacceptable. Following the same logic, Moscow claims the regions of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhya, and tomorrow Russia may claim the regions of Kharkiv and Dnipropetrovsk, and so on. With this war, Russia wanted to unilaterally violate international law and interfere in the sovereignty of other states as it saw fit. This is unacceptable to us. It is simply impossible to find a compromise solution on this issue. Serious negotiations begin with the elimination of Russian criminal enclaves on the entire territory of Ukraine, including Crimea. Both the Russian territory and the processes taking place there are irrelevant to Ukraine.

From all appearances, this question is at least indirectly relevant to Ukraine.

Yes, indirectly, of course, this question is important to us. Because revolutionary upheavals in Russia would increase the likelihood of much more capable and modern types of politicians ascending to power. But that's it. We will not go beyond our internationally recognised borders.

What other issues do you consider important in the negotiation process?

We would like to see the fact of the war stated as such. This will enable us to demand reparations from the Russian side. After all, Russia has destroyed a large number of towns and villages in Ukraine. In addition, Moscow has to extradite a whole series of collaborators who were mainly responsible for carrying out the war crimes. This is essentially. Russia withdrew from the negotiation process when it realised that Ukraine was not willing to comply with the Russian ultimatum and give up territory for a supposed ceasefire. Ukraine will never trade on its sovereignty.

What will this war mean for Ukraine and how will it change Ukrainian politics? What major trends can you identify at the moment?

The trends are clear. Since the outbreak of the war, Ukraine has acquired a much greater international subjectivity. After the war, Ukraine will have a stronger influence on pan-European and global processes. These are the most important elements. Ukraine will initiate the transformation of the global and especially the European security system and become an essential element of the European security architecture. Ukraine will finally free itself from the remnants of the old Soviet model of the state, with numerous bureaucrats with far-reaching powers, the state will become more compact and attractive for investment and overall for the economy and business. Ukraine will become an integral part of the European Union, not only economically but also politically.

Will Ukraine join NATO?

Once NATO has gone through a transformation phase, Ukraine will become an integral part of NATO. Simply because, apart from the Ukrainian army, no Western army has experience in a major war, a systemic war of great intensity. So the Ukrainian army will be a very important part of the security system for all of Europe.

What will relations with Russia look like?

Ukraine will end once and for all the history of the Russian Federation as a country to be feared and whose opinion is to be heeded. Unfortunately, Europe has long yielded to Russia's ultimatums without contradiction. For a long time, Europe has acquiesced to Moscow's direct and indirect threats. Ukraine will return Russia to its true status. Namely, the status of an economically insignificant resource-exporting state, a state with a very weak army and a backward military-industrial complex. This will permanently reduce Russia's ability to influence European politics. Russia's place will be taken by Ukraine. Kyiv will play a much more important role, not only in Eastern Europe, but in the whole of Europe.

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