Mykhailo Podoliak has been living in the Presidentʼs Office building for 120 days. He pathetically criticizes the West, openly talks about the necessary weapons and Ukraineʼs losses in the war — a long interview

Maria Zhartovska
Yevhen Spirin
Mykhailo Podoliak has been living in the Presidentʼs Office building for 120 days. He pathetically criticizes the West, openly talks about the necessary weapons and Ukraineʼs losses in the war — a long interview

During Russiaʼs war with Ukraine, Mykhailo Podoliak, an adviser to the head of the Ukrainian Presidentʼs Office Andriy Yermak and now a member of the Ukrainian delegation in talks with Russia, became almost a key speaker of the state. He gives dozens of interviews to Ukrainian, Russian and Western media. Podoliak is not taking part in the talks with Russia, as there are no talks at the moment. Podoliak answers about functions in the Office of the President simply and a bit pathetically: his task is to explain the part of state policy that is necessary for the war to develop in the interests of Ukraine. Simply put, Podoliak scales the statements of Presidents Volodymyr Zelensky and Andriy Yermak to a larger audience. Podoliak met with Babel journalist Masha Zhartovska on Saturday in his office in the Presidentʼs Office building, where he actually lives for all 122 days of full-scale war. There are a few ironed T-shirts on the chair, a few pairs of shoes in the corner. Recently, Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council Oleksiy Danilov criticized Podoliak in an interview for voicing figures on the weapons Ukraine needs. Podoliak told Babel that he did not understand why Danilov was saying all this, and that he was probably running his own information campaign. Also, Podoliak explains why the West is not right, and Ukraine needs weapons, why Ukraine gave citizenship to Russian journalist Alexander Nevzorov, what is the role of another adviser to the Presidentʼs Office head Oleksiy Arestovich, and who writes speeches for Volodymyr Zelensky.

We are talking shortly after the visit of Scholz, Macron, Draghi to Kyiv. The countries they lead are some of the most criticized by you on Twitter [for example, here and here]. Is such communication possible to achieve the desired result in them helping Ukraine?

I wouldnʼt say this is criticism. This is a public discussion. Before the war, real politics dominated: [sides] promised one thing, agreed otherwise informally, and spoke publicly about the third. This has given rise to many unfulfilled expectations, illusions and myths. Now, thanks to the harsh rhetoric of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, traditional politics has been restored.

All visits of the first persons of other states to Ukraine allow them to assess the changed world more distinctly. Yesterday, they perceived it through live broadcasts of their own journalists. There are no claims, these are partners with whom you need to learn to speak in confidence, without playing in the veiled senses in which diplomacy is played. But now itʼs a more open discussion that allows for more meaningful agreements, decisions and mutual understanding.

Is your communication more aimed at politicians or citizens of these countries?

First of all, at society. It seems to me that public opinion in a number of European countries is more pro-Ukrainian than the mood of political elites. Still, political elites are more conservative and likely to make shady deals with the Russian Federation. It is difficult for them to move away from this pragmatic conservatism. Society is more emotional about the war, it feels it more acutely — thanks to good journalistic materials and our temporary migrants. And we appeal to public opinion through emotion. We show that the war continues with the same intensity and degree of bloodthirstiness on the part of Russia. Then public opinion in these countries suppresses the political elites, and we get quick solutions. And this is very important, because this is a war with an extraordinary number of shots, which lead to heavy losses, injuries, disability, temporary resettlement of many Ukrainians. We need to end this war effectively and speed up its end.

In a recent interview with Russian Meduza outlet, Michael McFaul said that the unity of support for Ukraine is not infinite either, and cracks are emerging already. He talks about the declining interest of Americans and the media in the war. You also complain that in Kyiv, for example, people have relaxed and it seems as if the war is already somewhere in the east, let alone Western societies. What to do with it?

McFaul is right. This is an objective analysis of inevitability. People who are not directly involved in hostilities can not be constantly in an adrenaline rush, constantly concentrating their attention on it. People want to live in comfort, shut themselves off from the negativity and live in a joyful flow. Especially in countries that donʼt experience all the emotional pressure that Ukrainians go through now. Therefore, we should not relax and should constantly show them the true story of the war — pictures, people suffering, events in the east, the volume and intensity of shelling by Russia. The destruction of our country: many villages and cities are physically gone. We need to repeat a thousand times that we have a war. A thousand times that today people are forced not just to flee the war, but to wander, because the war is not over and they canʼt return. We have a huge amount of invasion, the front line is longer than a thousand kilometers. In these towns and villages, people are constantly under strong pressure and waiting for shellings.

There should be no concern about it [the style of communication]. Sometimes an opinion dominates that we have convinced everyone that there is a war, that Ukraine needs help, and that we have pushed the front line to the south and east of Ukraine. Accordingly, we can just sit and wait for everyone to help us. No, it doesnʼt work that way. We will have to repeat many times that the war has not gone anywhere. And if we donʼt stop it, it will simply expand and more and more people will pay a huge price.

Recently, an acquaintance of mine from Belgium said that news from Ukraine are toxic, and an acquaintance from the United States asked if the war is still there. People either donʼt want to see whatʼs happening in our country, or they donʼt understand whatʼs going on anymore. Apart from constant repetitions, is there any other strategy?

We can attract big stars and speakers to articulate the existence of war in Europe. They may be softer in their wording, but given the size of the audience they will be effective. We can hold rallies near Russian embassies in the United States and European countries. We can involve people who have a certain public image to visit our ruined cities so that they gain emotions. After all, emotions are more important than dry numbers. War must be shown through emotion.

We must not forget that Russia spends a lot of money on counter-information campaigns. Especially in the last month. They work in the domestic market primitively, in a propagandistic way. This is strange propaganda, especially — the letter Z, which causes the maximum cringe in the whole world. But for their domestic market itʼs okay. On the outside, they work in a much more sophisticated manner. They try to give their speakers, who explain softly and donʼt always say that people should be killed. The amount of Russian information work also causes war fatigue. But we understand how to counteract this.


We cannot disclose all the technologies we use.

Letʼs go back to Mr. McFaul. He says FoxNews is repeating the thesis that the United States shouldnʼt worry about the war in Ukraine at all, let alone spending such huge funds on it. Voters are much more concerned about internal problems than the fact that people are dying in Ukraine…

No one has abolished domestic and political pragmatism in any country. In the United States, there is political competition between well-known major parties. It is clear that today speculations on domestic issues are possible. It is more important for voters whether their standard of living will fall or whether food and utilities will become more expensive. We also once speculated on this topic during the election campaigns. Internal problems distract from global ones. But there is a nuance here — when we talk about a war of this magnitude in Europe in the 21st century, we are talking about values — how necessary are they? Unfortunately, Ukraineʼs voice has been too quiet for a long time. It is now because of the war and thanks to the president that the voice is significant. And Ukraine is talking about value choices.

But internal problems are always difficult to break even with terrible global news. They live a day or three. Then people go and lock themselves in what is closer to them. And here the second part is important — the rhetorics of the right pro-Ukrainian lobbying organizations in certain countries. Unfortunately, we have not done this work for a long time in the proper amount. It is important that we have our own relations with certain lobbying institutions that understand exactly how to work with the public opinion of different countries. This is also a very large component of the work that is only now being done. Because before the war, Ukraine never considered itself a country that could play a strong role on the global scene.

We have strong diasporas in Canada, lobbyists in the United States, and there are countries where our presence was very weakfor example, African and Asian ones. That is, you are now starting this work with them?

In fact, thereʼs a number of continents we havenʼt involved in terms of supporting Ukraine. We were mostly focused on working with the European continent and North America. And even there not in the proper amount in all of the countries. But, of course, that is where we have a warm partnership and the greatest support now in the war with Russia.

You said earlier that the pro-Russian lobby in Europe is raising its head. How specifically and in which countries the most?

In almost all countries, since 2008, Russia has invested heavily in creating a network of pro-Russian lobbies. It unites politicians of different levels and echelons, journalists, public figures, professors, cultural actors. They were involved through grants and cultural events. They were included in the supervisory boards of large Russian commodity companies. They developed joint businesses not only in the energy sector, but also in others.

This happened in almost all countries — in Southern, Central and Northern Europe. To a lesser extent, this applied to the countries of Eastern Europe. Many people ther understood very well what the former USSR and modern Russia were like. For 1.5 months after the start of the military campaign in Ukraine, this network was in a confused, shocked state, largely inactive. And now they are offering a narrative through newspapers and public debates that Russia is an element of Europe, its interests must be thought of and taken into account. That it is necessary to make concessions, and the negotiation process must take into account the conditions of the Russian Federation.

You mentioned the negotiation process. There have already been calls from Henry Kissinger that Ukraine should make territorial concessions, there has been columns in The New York Times and The Washington Post that the West is preparing for a protracted war and that Ukraine needs to do something. Are there risks that such narratives in the Western media will intensify?

The volume of such messages will increase. After all, Russia has felt that the pre-war rhetoric of fear is beginning to be partially present in the European or global media, and will invest in this, because it is necessary to force Ukraine to a certain agreement.

What territorial concessions to Russia give us? Only one thing — further movement along the military path. The war will stop for a while, and then Russian propaganda will work again that Ukraine raises fighter marmots, and then a large-scale war will begin again to seize the next part of our territory.

The second part is that Russia will correct mistakes in the military sense, because they have not fought on such a scale and in direct conflict with another army for a long time. They will adjust the control system, accumulate even more necessary weapons, and attack us with even greater brutality.

The third component — any territorial concession of the Russian Federation will establish the status quo in relation to the territorial losses of Ukraine. People will not return, for example, to Kharkiv, Mykolayiv, Zaporizhzhia, and Kryvyi Rih, because they will understand that war can break out at any moment, and these are the main industrial centers [of Ukraine]. We are getting the collapse of industry, Ukraine wonʼt receive investments. We are also losing our agricultural potential. That is, we get a completely destroyed country, which also gave up part of its territories. We will lose statehood in the very, so to speak, near future. So the question is: why do we need this? We live here, in our own state. I understand that when you sit somewhere in Southern Europe, you donʼt care whether to give the territory to Russia. But it doesnʼt work that way. There is a clear analysis of the consequences of what we are doing. In 2014-2019, a group of people who talked a lot but analyzed little, led us to accept some territorial concessions.

Are you talking about Petro Poroshenko and the Minsk agreements now?

I donʼt even personify it. This is a matter of public policy, which may or may not be thought out well. It was erroneous in 2014-2015. The signed territorial concessions provoked further conflict. And today we have a full-scale war.

Europe should already understand that there are no rules, customs and agreements when you do it with Russia, including in a legal format. For Russia, there is only its expediency. The Russians use all heavy weapons except for nuclear under a contrived pretext. They attack from all sides, using strategic aircraft, long-range cruise missiles, they hit peaceful neighborhoods. And Europe continues to say: "Then letʼs give up part of the territory!" And what will we get in a year, two or three? Will Russia become different, will it transform, will it stop invading neighboring countries? Will it stop selling expansionism? They have never sold anything else in the last 20 years.

Letʼs return to the column in The Washington Post. It was also said that we can hope for a stalemate, because Russia is better armed. It is unlikely that the West does not understand this, why then there are no weapons to the extent that Ukraine needs?

There is a big difference between "the West understands" and "the West makes decisions". The West is conservative, and it still believes that itʼs possible to return to the pre-war structure of relations within Europe. The West continues to feel a certain fear of Russia, which uses all the tools of blackmail — rising energy prices, the work of the Russian lobby, which is trying to lull public opinion in the West. And most importantly — the conservative-bureaucratic thinking of political elites.

They are not used to making responsible decisions. The concept of leadership has long gone from European politics. Zelensky showed how to take responsibility and how to call a spade a spade.

Now this just starts to form in Europe again. We need to rebuild the political nature in which they have lived for the last 30-40 years. I understand that we love idealistic formulas: we came, said what we need, and tomorrow everything came here by a "green" corridor. No. This is a question of the general restructuring of the entire political field of Europe: it is necessary to completely restructure both business and economy — and this is pressure from business at least. These are very complex processes.

We are now talking openly about our losses at the front, which we did not do in previous months. Secretary of the Security and Defense Council of Ukraine Oleksiy Danilov said in an interview with that it is impossible to juggle numbers so openly. Why are we doing this — to push the West to give us weapons faster?

I wouldnʼt say that we juggle numbers. We are trying to mark the depth of the problem. The figures may vary slightly, but in general the president outlined an approximate amount of casualties, including the wounded and disabled. Itʼs just that the time has come for us to look at the war more objectively.

We are just entering a more objective picture of the coverage of the war. The first one and a half to two months the type of war was different. And the mobilization of society here and in our partner countries was different.

Now, on the one hand, they are getting tired, and on the other hand, they are looking at the price Ukraine is paying biased. And, probably, this price needs to be determined. This is difficult for us. Itʼs always difficult to determine the price. But we will not be able to go further if we are not objective in the picture we have during the war.

But here are the questions of communication within the country. Here you write on Twitter about the number of weapons needed. And Danilov says that he does not understand why you are saying this, here is a direct quote: “I donʼt understand why he is now the voice of the army. Such things should be said by Zaluzhny, Shaptala and the Minister of Defense”. Whatʼs going on?

I honestly donʼt quite understand why people say all this. There is the mathematics of war, and there is a certain circle of people, speakers of the state, who have the right to name certain parameters and figures. Iʼm not even ready to comment on this [Danilovʼs statement]. Because I think that this person is probably running his own information campaign. I donʼt know why he does this.

As for the numbers, once again — there is a relentless logic of parity of human forces and weapons that you use. Especially when you are preparing a counterattack. It is impossible to move away from this parity. We have to count the math: the number of shots, the number of long-range equipment used. Minimize the losses we want to get. The echeloned defense of the enemy in some areas, which we will have to unblock.

Another issue, in my opinion, is that it defines a certain corridor of the negotiation process. You know what the problem is: we voiced the request for a certain amount [of the weapons] during the war, which was the first two months. Now the Russians have moved here much more machinery than in the first days. In the early days there was a lot of armored vehicles, and now a lot of artillery in certain places and directions. Therefore, it is a question of changing priorities within the war, a dialogue corridor in communication with our partners.

Earlier you said that by the autumn-winter of this year the situation may develop very paradoxically, because no one can stop. Could you give more details on this?

Given the number of weapons in Russia, we can say that the war could turn into a protracted conflict. A long one — to deplete the resources of one or another country. Russia has a huge amount of resources. The standard of living is not important for its population, they can stay for a long time, say, on staple food. These standards are unacceptable for us.

However, despite this difference in the concentration of resources, psychologically irreversible processes may begin in Russia. They can be caused by panic, fear and internal conflicts. That is, the war, it would seem, can be protracted. But it may end soon. Due to an internal rift in the Russian Federation itself. Thatʼs all.

Now have negotiations between Ukraine and Russia at the level of delegations stopped?

They are on pause. There is only a humanitarian subsection, which is connected with the exchange of prisoners, humanitarian corridors, evacuation from the zone of hostilities of our citizens. As for the political-diplomatic section, it makes no sense, because intense fighting continues in the east of the country. Russia is betting that it will be able to gain some tactical military victory due to a significant numerical advantage. It makes no sense to negotiate with such an opponent, because it will irrationally respond to all counter-offers.

Is there a mediation of Roman Abramovich in the humanitarian part?

Roman Abramovich is not a member of the delegation, heʼs a midleman. Accordingly, his participation is present only as mediation. He is not a member of the delegation on either side. My attitude to him is simply neutral. There is a person who deals with mediation, the establishment of some corridors, the possibilities of the negotiation process — nothing more.

The British newspaper The Times wrote that Abramovich was trying to challenge the sanctions imposed on him in the EU with a letter from Davyd Arakhamia. Arakhamia does not comment on this information, but the letter allegedly states that thanks to Abramovich, an agreement was reached on humanitarian corridors, through which more than 400,000 civilians were evacuated. Is that so, do you know about the letter?

It is incorrect for me to ask questions that are absolutely correct only for Davyd Arakhamia.

I will ask a little about domestic policy. What is the current function of Oleksiy Arestovych? At the beginning of the war, he gave the false hope that it would end in two or three weeks, now he broadcasts almost every night with Russian human rights activist Mark Feigin, why?

You keep asking me to describe other people. This is not entirely correct. Arestovychʼs function is very simple — he explains the psychology of war. He talks about why war is a difficult process, and at the same time tries to give hope that we will cope with it.

This is a really thankless job, you need to choose the right tone and sometimes you have to play with some kind of distortion. If the war is shown to be dirty — as it really is, it very quickly demoralizes society, and a demoralized society begins to resist much less actively. We canʼt afford that. In my opinion, Oleksiyʼs function is to show this war on the border so that there is no demoralization.

Commenting on the possibility of granting Ukrainian citizenship to Russian journalist Alexander Nevzorov at the press conference, the President said that we should shake up Russia, if there is such an opportunity. That is, we use Nevzorov as a tool. Does he coordinate with you on the messages he distributes?

Nevzorov has an amazing volume viewers, listeners and readers, he is very well known in the Russian-speaking audience. At the same time, he feels an organic disgust for Russiaʼs current political elite, especially Putin, which is undoubtedly a useful information weapon for Ukraine. It will give us additional options to influence Russia.

And it will also provide additional options to influence the Russian-speaking audience in other countries. Itʼs very important, because it is pressure. Pressure in the Russian-speaking environment. This is the right strategy. I understand some of the doubts about his biography. But I generally prefer not to live by biographies of yesterday. Because starting from February 24, we must use all communication opportunities so as not to lose to much more powerful Russian propaganda. We must use all the tools, all the platforms and all the subjects who have an extremely negative perception not only of Putin, but also of the entire political elite of the Russian Federation. And because they have been integrated into the Russian community, they have a deep understanding of who is who. And can strike painful blows. So this strategy is correct.

But still a question: why giving citizenship? The President mentioned Lia Akhedzhakova and Andrey Makarevich, but they do not ask for Ukrainian citizenship and continue to criticize Russia.

It is incorrect for me to discuss the Presidentʼs decisions. Motivationally, they are correct. Nevzorovʼs citizenship is a great symbolism for part of the Russian audience. Honestly, it seems to me that we are too enthusiastic about discussing the insignificant. I mean not now, but in general. I donʼt understand many of our internal information campaigns.

Which ones, for example?

Internal campaigns aimed on splitting [the society], when Pesidential team members and he himself are attacked, when road construction that existed before the war is mentioned. For me, this is a bit mysterious, because it seems to me that the key task is now defined very clearly: we are attacking the Russian information field. This should be a consolidated position.

Nevzorov does not seem to be the last one to be granted Ukrainian citizenship. There was already information that Mikhail Fridman was conducting consultations, it was refuted, but still the question is that part of society does not want to live next to the "good Russians" and this will lead to a split. Donʼt you see such risks?

This is such a difficult and simple question at the same time. In my opinion, our split is always artificially present. Because they become bases for political careers and itʼs a very easy way to get elected somewhere, to get a place in parliament and then in government. With the beginning of the war, I hoped that we would grow over this. But look, everything that certain political groups do in our country is gradually turning to derogatory rhetoric. Not them personally, but their network infrastructure. They do not know how to have a dialogue. They do not hear opponents. They are not ready to discuss things intellectually. This gradually turns simply into insults, into the memesation of politicians of another camp, their direct humiliation, and so on. And why is that? What does it give? Is this the added value of the state? People just need to understand: the added value of the state is when there is competition of creative nature.

There is Anastasia Leonova, a Russian citizen who in 2015 was in the Right Sector, and now in the Marines. With great difficulty she was given a residence permit in Ukraine on the eve of being sent to the frontline. That is, she is now fighting for Ukraine — still without Ukrainian citizenship. Maybe you have a base of such Russians, and there are plans to grant them Ukrainian citizenship?

Yes, look, all surnames, we will deal with all of them now. I think many of the parameters for granting citizenship or residence permits to people who are really active in defending Ukraine will be revised, and we will really address these issues.

Is it true that Dmytro Lytvyn has been writing evening speeches to Volodymyr Zelensky lately, and what is Yuriy Kostyukʼs role now?

To put it simply: there is a group that includes Kostyuk, Lytvyn, [Andriy] Sybiha, and several other people. They are working quite intensively on the presidentʼs speeches. But in fact the key author of theses is Zelensky himself, as he sets the framework. He sets almost all of the speeches structurally. As for the specifics and additional turns — this is a task of a group of writers.

Regarding the information telethon, what is the participation of the Presidentʼs Office in which speakers to send there?

This is moderated by editors, editorial groups of those channels that are part of the marathon. We want to have one voice on a number of issues, especially the war. We have agreed on a whole group of speakers from the Ministry of Defense, the General Staff, and the National Guard, and the experts are selected by the channelʼs editorial teams.

It is unrealistic for the conditional opposition — Petro Poroshenko, Yulia Tymoshenko or, say, Dmytro Razumkov — to get into the marathon.

I have a counter-question. Of course, the editors themselves determine [whether to invite them], but I have a question: what will be the relevance of their words?

But are you talking about an intellectual discussion?

And they are not into an intellectual discussion. An intellectual discussion is when you understand the risks that arise from one or another of your statements. These, and not only these, but many other politicians, when they go on the air, forget about the state in which the country is, and begin to sell their subjective "I — love me". This is a very bad position.

In March, you and Arakhamia went to the European Solidarity office to look at pickups purchased for the Territorial Defense of Kyiv. After that was there a dialogue with Poroshenko?


Maybe he was trying to come to the Presidentʼs Office with suggestions or dialogue?

No. It was then that we had a kind of dialogue, like, "Letʼs work with a common vision of what war is and what the place of politics is in war." But it did not work, because Poroshenko says one thing, but does another.

During this time, has the Presidential Office ordered sociological surveys about trust to Zelensky?

We are constantly make surveys about how people feel about war, what their experiences are, and so on. That is, we want to know the mood of society to work effectively with it. There are some fears, expectations.

Letʼs have one last question about post-war politicians. You have mentioned the President several times, but who else can appear after the war?

I donʼt know. Everyone now has a window of opportunity, it makes no sense for me to evaluate people. Everyone can express themselves in a certain way today. And look, I will say a paradoxical thing: even a pre-war politician can transform and become a post-war politician — a person who will look at the political process differently. Not traditionally: “Letʼs order compromising material. Letʼs start a bot network. Letʼs bribe some small security officers to create an artificial criminal case somewhere..." When a person refuses to use these tools and offers ideas and logistics for the implementation of these ideas, and he or she really has the willingness to implement these ideas, rather than selling himself or herself on the air of a TV channel, then, probably, such person can become a postwar politician.

Translated from Ukrainian by Anton Semyzhenko.

Ukraine is waiting for weapons from the West, and Babel is waiting for donates from you: donate in hryvnia 🔸 in cryptocurrency 🔸 Patreon 🔸 PayPal: [email protected]