Zelenskyy’s chief-of-staff Yermak and his influence — expert interview

Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Andriy Yermak
Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Andriy Yermak

Political scientist Oleksiy Koshel spoke in an interview with NV Radio on May 22 about the influence that Andriy Yermak, Head of the President’s Office, exerts in the state, and whether it’s true that he could have convinced President Volodymyr Zelenskyy that Russia would not invade in 2022, as BBC News reported recently.

NV: Last week, BBC News Ukraine wrote that Yermak had been convinced that Russia was unlikely to invade in February 2022, which probably informed Zelenskyy’s views on how to respond to the Western warnings about the imminent war. Do you think his influence is strong enough to translate directly into state policy?

Koshel: I think that of all the heads of the secretariat, administration, and the President’s Office, Yermak is the most influential. I used to think that the most influential person was [former head of the Presidential Administration] Dmytro Tabachnyk, about whom there were even jokes that [former Ukrainian President] Leonid Kuchma worked as president in Dmytro Tabachnyk’s administration.

NV: That is, influential chiefs-of-staff are nothing new to Ukraine.

Right, but in any case, the head of the President’s Office is more than just an official in Ukraine. If we compare, for example, with the office of the president of Poland [Andrzej Duda], I think none of us will even remember either the current head of the presidential administration or any of the previous heads. That is, they simply do their job: they ensure the work of the head of state, including planning meetings, work schedules, etc.

But in Ukraine it’s always more than just the head of the office. And there are some reasonable explanations for this arrangement. Because the struggle for power has been going on for a long time (it’s still underway). The President’s Office has always tried to directly control the Cabinet of Ministers, and so on. But now, when all the power is entirely concentrated in the president’s hands... For the first time in Ukrainian history, there’s a single party majority in the parliament, a pro-presidential one. In fact, any decisions can be pushed through parliament with little effort. I’ve seen some members of the Cabinet openly state that they report not to [Prime Minister] Denys Shmyhal, but directly to the President’s Office.

As it stands, Bankova [the street that houses the President’s Office] holds all the power in the country. Therefore, it’s quite normal that Yermak is today the de facto second person in terms of informal power and influence. Does he replace the president? I don’t think so. If we can analyze the president’s official statements, his rhetoric, and the format of emotional decision-making, which quite often takes place, I think Yermak does not determine all that on his own.

Read also: Zelenskyy’s chief of staff dubbed ‘ghost’ with exceptionally broad powers – The Washington Post

NV: The question is whether Yermak’s influence was enough to convince Zelenskyy that Russia would not invade Ukraine, based on his negotiations with Moscow prior to Feb. 24, 2022.

Koshel: If we say that Yermak is No. 2 in terms of influence in the country, then it’s obvious that he remains No. 1 in terms of influence on the head of state.

When we analyze public meetings, media reports about various visits, official occasions, etc., it’s obvious that Yermak remains the most influential person in government [besides Zelenskyy].

Could he influence the president’s stance regarding the improbability of the full-scale invasion? Obviously, yes. That is, the presidential entourage always has an influence on the head of state. And again, unlike a mere mortal, the president of Ukraine doesn’t have the opportunity to analyze the totality of available information on his own. Briefs and various monitoring reports are put on his desk, but the key conclusions are made by his entourage.

Why does this happen? Here the question isn’t even Yermak’s omnipotence, or some of his characteristics. Here the question is the lack of experience on Zelenskyy’s part.

Let’s remember that until 2019, before the presidential elections, Zelenskyy managed a rather large team. It consisted of over 100 people, but it was a creative team. It was a show business company, it’s a completely different genre [to running a country]. That is, it’s a genre more like journalism, with an informal environment for coming up with various ideas. But this isn’t classical management. He has never managed anything in his life in terms of classical management. Even a café manager may already have some experience, such as the supply of goods, logistics, accounting — quite complex things.

In general—a team of people who had no management experience came to power [in 2019], with no understanding of how the state apparatus works. It’s not enough to listen to some lectures or read textbooks to understand governance. Here you need to have high-level managerial experience.

Read also: Another Deputy Head of Ukrainian President's Office to depart — NV sources

That’s why people who were in charge of the government, in charge of at least several ministries, were traditionally elected presidents in Ukraine.

Therefore, a key problem arose when high-level decision-making became an illogical, perverted administrative mechanism.

About half a year ago, Zelenskyy even publicly said that a group of five or six people were responsible for all decisions in the state. A very small group of people has influence on decision-making. And you know, the worst thing in this situation is that these people don’t include either the speaker of the parliament, or the secretary of the National Security and Defense Council, or even the PM. We have a certain “parallel structure” that manages the state manually. And the question is that when everything is attributed to the war — yes, we need manual decision-making mechanisms, extremely fast decisions, in wartime.

This manual mode could have worked in the first months of the war. But when we talk about certain strategic policies, about making difficult decisions, about the fact that it’s necessary to look at least one year, several years ahead, consider all risks, plan the economy accordingly, and many other things, this mechanism simply doesn’t work, it fails. And that’s why the state has become much less effective.

NV: To summarize this Western media narrative about Yermak, it’s clear that someone has managed to convince Zelenskyy that there will be no invasion in the immediate run-up to it. Obviously, it had to be someone very close to the president.

Koshel: I think we might be horrified when analyzing Zelenskyy’s entourage after books on Ukraine’s modern history appear in the years and decades to come. That is, it means there may be several people in Zelenskyy’s entourage who could have a rather negative influence, to put it mildly, on the head of state. For instance, we didn’t even mention the former head of Ukraine’s SBU security service, [Ivan] Bakanov. His role in influencing the president, in presenting false or distorted information, could have been quite significant.

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Read the original article on The New Voice of Ukraine