11 September 2022, 02:52 PM

Ukraine’s daring counteroffensive, war reparations, and negotiations – an interview with Mykhailo Podolyak

In a span of several days, the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) liberated more than 2,500 square kilometers of land in Kharkiv Oblast from Russian occupation. Major logistical nodes such as Kupyansk, Balakliya, and Izyum are once again under Ukraine’s control.

Advisor to the Chief-of-Staff of the President of Ukraine, Mykhailo Podolyak, spoke about the recent, head-spinning developments on the battlefield, and how the Kremlin might react, in an interview with NV Radio on Sept. 10.

NV: There’s good news coming in – Ukrainian troops are posting photos from liberated Kupyansk. Do you have any details to share on that?

Podolyak: It’s proper to wait for official confirmation from our General Staff or the president.

It’s great to see our guys sharing what’s going on at the front lines – they provide a vital emotional context to what’s going.

Nevertheless, only military people can give official confirmation of what is an ongoing major counteroffensive. They have the necessary expertise to avoid giving the enemy an idea of where we might turn next to.

From my vantage point, the Ukrainian counteroffensive is strategically different. It’s not about some arbitrary direction of thrust. For example, Kupyansk is an objective, because it’s a logistical node, key to cutting the supply of Russia’s entire force in Kharkiv Oblast.

With varying intensity, our counteroffensive is ongoing across dozens of directions. Active fighting is underway in the south, near Melitopol (Zaporizhzhia Oblast), near Kharkiv. Major Ukrainian successes (not in terms of land area regained, but rather through degradation of the enemy military infrastructure) are happening in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. The fighting is most intense there, by the way. That’s the key region we need to focus on, in my opinion.

For two weeks, we’ve worked to disrupt and destroy enemy backline infrastructure, Russian logistics, preventing them from reinforcing with reserve troops.

This is all part of a thorough, complex strategy.

Now, let’s turn to political implications of recent events. There were certain doubts – shared by some of our international partners – about Ukraine’s ability to advance in active counteroffensives. It was clear that we can defend well enough, halting the onslaught of the superior, more technically advanced Russian army. But can we mount an offensive of our own?

The last several days have shown, beyond any doubt, that we can conduct creative, rapid offensive operations, while keeping the enemy in the dark as to our plans. Consequently, our partners now understand that Russia can be defeated militarily in Ukraine. It’s a significant shift in how the war is viewed, emotionally. Crucial weapon supplies will more easily be provided to Ukraine. Those doubts – that’s why there was talk of negotiations with Moscow.

By now, it’s abundantly clear – to ourselves, to Russia, to our Western partners – that Ukraine knows how to attack and counterattack.

NV: Speaking of Russia becoming aware that Ukraine can push forward. Given your role in the negotiations with Russia in the early stages of the war, do you have any insight how this counteroffensive could be affecting the Kremlin’s calculus?

Podolyak: We have certain reports how the mood is shifting in the Kremlin and in Russia’s political elite, in general. The Kremlin is a rather isolated environment. Very few people there have a direct line to Russian dictator Vladimir Putin and can gauge how that man is taking everything that’s going on.

I’d caution against overestimating the significance of those negotiations. The Russians were there to collate information and report it up the chain of command – to Putin, ultimately.

Unfortunately, Russia isn’t a rational actor. They don’t do analytics-based policy making. I think Putin flat out doesn’t understand what’s happening on the ground. He thinks Russia has enough resources to pull through.

Speaking of which, we much remember that Russia still has plenty of equipment. It doesn’t matter that its old, Soviet-made. They also still have a number of cruise missiles. This continues to present us with challenges of protecting our civilian population.

Russia is currently in shock and, to certain degree, despair. Nevertheless, they remain convinced they can break Ukraine by maintaining sporadic strikes at our major cities.

In Ukraine, there is a very clear public consensus: the war must end on Ukraine’s terms, with not a hint of another Minsk treaty (the Minsk Accords effectively froze the conflict following Russia’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of Donbas in 2014). There cannot be any Russian enclaves in Ukrainian territory, no matter how they might be called. Those would remain a constant source of instability and provocations. That’s the consensus of the Ukrainian society.

After we saw the morbid horrors of Russian occupation of Kyiv Oblast, it has also become clear that Russia must pay for what it has done. The punishment has to be either legal, or in terms of physically eliminated Russian troops on our soil.

Moscow still doesn’t accept it could withdraw its troops. Our negotiating position is clear – pull your troops back beyond our internationally recognized 1991 borders (as opposed to arbitrary “boundaries” as of Feb. 23), then we’ll talk.

We’re open to discuss three things: reparations, future co-existence framework, and legal responsibility for Russian citizens, engaged in carrying out atrocities against the Ukrainian people.

As of now, Russia is still not ready to accept this perfectly reasonable Ukrainian negotiating position.

NV: President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said 606 Russian citizens were targeted by Ukrainian sanctions. Notably, prominent Russian oligarchs like Oleg Deripaska, the Rotenberg brothers, Mikhail Fridman – are all absent from the list, despite owning major assets in Ukraine. It would appear Kyiv is reluctant to introduce personal sanctions against them, to confiscate their assets.

Podolyak: The state can confiscate assets of Russian citizens who, in one way or another, finance Russia’s war, without any sanctions. It’s a clear legal procedure to freeze assets of individuals associated with Russia.

Seizing Deripaska’s aluminum plant in Mykolayiv, or Rotenberg’s malls, is a matter for Ukrainian law enforcement and courts.

Personal sanctions have a different purpose. They aim to prevent someone like Fridman, who is currently under UK sanctions, from accessing financial markets and doing business across a range of countries.

It’s about isolating individuals from the globalized economy as a whole – not just about seizing their Ukrainian assets.

NV: Nevertheless, I keep reading news about our law enforcement freezing assets of Russian citizens. The process is clearly underway. The question is why people like Deripaska and Fridman are not affected, so far?

Podolyak: It’s a lot of legal work. Russian citizens will have their Ukrainian properties seized in the end. But it’s process to figure out what belongs to whom.

Not to mention, the President’s Office is not a part of our law enforcement and legal systems, we don’t oversee these processes.

NV: Does the administration support the general idea that Rotenberg, Fridman, and Deripaska should have their Ukrainian assets frozen?

Podolyak: I think the President’s Office is in favor of a perfectly transparent application of economic sanctions to all Russian citizens who are in any way associated with Russia’s “special military operation” – to the war against Ukraine.

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