Mikhailo Podoliak, Zelensky’s main adviser, with Infobae: “If Latin America understands the nature of this war, it will forever forget Russia as a partner”

(kyiv, special envoy). It is a cold winter day in the city of kyiv. At night it snowed and the curbs of the sidewalks are covered in white. The appointment for the interview is at twelve noon at an exact address, but upon arrival it turns out to be only the starting point of a long journey. To get to the office of Mikhailo Podoliak We will have to pass three security posts and walk several blocks in a kind of maze. But it’s worth it, Podoliak is one of President Zelensky’s main advisers, if not the main one, and it is the first time he has spoken with a Latin American media outlet.

The details of the place cannot be shared, but the first meeting is with his secretary at a security checkpoint. We start walking through a residential neighborhood, we enter a kind of alley, then the inner courtyard of a building and we stop at the back door of a large complex. There we are checked by a new security post: we hand over the documents and equipment. We passed. We keep moving forward and suddenly we appear in the parking lot of a building that looks familiar. We entered through a side door and ran into two more soldiers. We pass the equipment through a scanner, we redeliver the documents, and finally we move towards an elevator. Only then do they tell us where we are: it is the building of ukrainian government, the same one where the president works every day Zelensky, the same one from which he records his statements, and the same one where on February 25, 2022 he filmed a selfie video to tell the world that he, the President of Ukraine, had not gone anywhere, that he was still in Kiev with his collaborators, and that he would not escape the Russian attack. For many, it was the moment when Zelensky became Zelensky, the world leader who would lead this war. In that video there were five people, the one to the right of him was just Mikhailo Podoliakwhich from the first day of the invasion settled in this very building and literally stayed to live.

Since then, he has never left. Only once a week is he allowed to come back to his house, see his wife, have a little breath of life. The rest of the days he is here, in the same office close to the president’s where he now receives infobae. While we wait for him, his secretary allows us to rummage around the corners without restriction. He has eight pairs of sneakers and shoes, some daddy soccer cleats, a weapon – an automatic pistol – on his desk, a folded Ukrainian flag and another on a pole. He has a painting of himself with two black wings sticking out of his back – “a gift, like almost everything you see here”, he will say – and a toy doll also with his face and clothes. In the library there are some books and a miniature figure of Zelensky dressed in military uniform. There is a picture frame with postcards with his image on it, and there is a painting with the photo of two combatants from the Azovstalone of the iconic places of this war, where Ukrainian soldiers resisted weeks before the Russian siege in Mariupol.

Mikhailo Podoliak poses in his office in kyiv, Ukraine (Franco Fafasuli /)

Podoliak is a serious man, or at least this version of him is. He speaks little about his life, he says that this is not the time. He was born in Lviv, Ukraine, in 1972. In the 1990s he moved to Belarus and became a journalist there. For many years he was the editor of a media outlet opposed to the then Belarusian dictator, Aleksandr Lukashenko. Eventually, Podoliak was invited to withdraw from the country. He returned to Ukraine and began working as an adviser to various politicians. In April 2020, he joined the Zelensky government. Since then he has become his most trusted advisor, and it is said that he is the one who helps him with speeches, as well as advising all the ministers on what they can and cannot say.

He became one of the main spokesmen during the war, and when a question bothers him or he prefers to avoid it, he simply says that he will talk about it when the war is over. He will say it a few times in this interview. For the rest, he speaks with the firmness of someone who knows that at that very moment he is playing his role in history.

-I imagine the weight that it must mean to carry forward a country at war. How are you doing?

-And… it’s a war. It has different laws and different rhythms of life. There are many tragedies but also much heroism. We are in a historic moment. Each person made his own choice and this is not just words, it is something very concrete: many people went to the front to defend the country. I understand that thousands of kilometers away this is not understood so much, that it may seem that it is a war for a small territory, but it is not. And every day we see the examples and the cost that is being paid. We have 14 million people who lost their homes, their jobs, their careers, who lost the possibility of studying or having a life like the one you have. You have it, they lost it.

-What is the hardest thing this year? And how did they change as a country?

-On the one hand, there are the people who lost their loved ones, civilians and soldiers, and there are the children who lost their parents. And when you see the eyes of these children, you see the strength and resistance they have… Today we are different. Today Ukraine is different. Today Ukraine is shaping the daily agenda globally, today Ukraine shows that you should not turn the other way when there is fear, today Ukraine makes the whole world understand that if you want to live in the free world, you have to pay for it. And this year we understood very well what we have to do: win the war so that everyone, including you, can also live in a different world. That first. And second, we understood that every day you have to get up and do, no matter what happens around you, you have to make decisions and assume responsibilities. Talk talk and talk so that no one is left with questions about why Russia came here and why no middle ground can be negotiated.

(Photo credit: Franco Fafasuli)
In his office, Podoliak has a painting of himself with two black wings sticking out of his back. “A gift, like almost everything you see here,” he said (Franco Fafasuli /)

-How do you manage to combine the management of the country and the management of the war? Because they have to carry out the defense campaign against Russia but also make the country work, have transportation, electricity, etc. How do they do it?

-It is a system of managing the country, in a situation of war. You solve many problems at the same time. There are many people prepared at many levels, people who are not public, who have taken many functional responsibilities into their hands, and are solving them. The president has formed a vertical system in which there are many people who understand what to do, both in civil infrastructure and in military matters. And on the other hand, there are the conversations with the different partners or allies, focused on the possibility of having everything necessary for the different stages of the war.

-President Zelensky took office on May 20, 2019. He went through the pandemic and then the war began. I imagine that none of the team came to the government expecting to face this situation, however the whole world is amazed with how they carry it out. Was it just luck or did they have a team put together for a situation like this?

Do you know what war produces? War makes all people show who they really are. Not only from the interior side, but also in the capacities. War accentuates if you can this and you can that. And in the foreground are the people who can take responsibility and understand what work has to be done and how it has to be done. There are people who are willing to give up all their time on it, understanding that other people on other levels also give up their time and their lives to reach a result. So, the war reveals everything that one is capable or not capable of doing.

-Are you living here, in this same building where you work?

-Yes, exactly. We have been here since the first day of the war. On February 24 at seven in the morning we were already in this building, with everything working to carry out our daily lives here, being informed all the time to make the necessary decisions.

(Photo credit: Franco Fafasuli)
An automatic pistol and a knife on Podoliak’s desk (Franco Fafasuli/)

-How is a day in your life?

-I always see all the information that was gathered at night in the morning. Much of it is confidential and helps us to know where we stand at each moment of the war. That is very important. Accurate information gives us the ability to react appropriately to any situation. Russia also always adds its influence to manipulate the information that appears. Not only to break Ukraine psychologically but also to influence other countries that are supporting us. That’s why they say things like this war will last a long time, that it’s going to drag on and so on. It’s to scare people.

-Could you tell me what that first day was like, that February 24?

-At approximately 4 in the morning there were some explosions. Some even happened close to my house. I got up and instantly understood that the war had started. There were a lot of people who wanted to leave the city, and it’s understandable because it’s a normal reaction. Then we began to work actively and make decisions. The president held a meeting of the Security Council so that the correct decisions were made, and later meetings were held with the Cabinet of Ministers and the Supreme Council of Parliament to be able to make the management system. There were also meetings with our partners. The first days everything was evaluation evaluation and evaluation, making anti-crisis decisions. When a war or a crisis starts, the most important thing to understand is how you are prepared for it, how you are prepared to react, and whether you are psychologically ready to endure it. If you are prepared to quickly process information and if you are in a position to ask the right questions to find out something, and thus make decisions. This is very important because when there is a big crisis there have to be people willing to do everything and Ukraine is very lucky because President Zelensky was absolutely precise from the beginning. He began to make the right decisions. And we are also lucky because there are many people, not all from the public sphere, who were able to make decisions. And that gave us the opportunity to take control of the information from the first moment and make the right decisions.

Ukrainian soldiers walk past the remains of a burnt-out military truck on a street in Kiev, Ukraine, on February 26, 2022. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

-How did that selfie video of February 25 come about, in which the president announced that he was in kyiv, and in which you accompanied him?

-There was no dissemination plan for the video, I want you to understand one very simple thing: if there is something naturally sincere, it will spread very quickly and have a shocking effect. Russia in the first days wanted to deceive the world and Ukraine by saying that our government had run away, there was no one in the capital, there was no government in Kive, and the president had fled. This was a key point in their Russian propaganda narratives. We could go out all the time and say we’re here. And understanding the times in which we live, the president decided to make that video using the instrument optimally in that situation. We recorded the video right there, in the courtyard of the president’s office, where the President, the Prime Minister, the head of the faction, the Head of the President’s Office and myself were. All of us who are always here. This is exactly how it was shown that no one was going to leave kyiv. Everyone understood what had to be done, that many people had to stay in their places, that the situation would thus be controlled. Yes, it is difficult but it was controlled. We are not Russia, we are ready to sacrifice ourselves for our country.

-Not only is he one of the main advisers of President Zelensky but also a friendship unites them. Do you have moments of intimacy in which you allow yourself to relax for a moment, have a banal conversation, forget about the war even for a minute?

-Some of those moments happen but we are not going to count too much until the war is over. Of course you have to have moments in which you can laugh, you can’t spend all your time analyzing the tragic pages and only make decisions and decisions. You have to talk about other things that can distract you a bit, and those moments give us the possibility of being able to work non-stop, as we have been doing for a year. But now you are here and this morning there were bombings, there were losses, and all of that is very difficult. But yes, you’re right, you have to know how to talk about other things too.

-We know that in these months the battle is concentrated in the city of Bakhmut, in the Donbas region. Internationally, it is discussed why they do not withdraw from there, taking into account that the Russian siege is very powerful and many resources, human and military, are being put into resisting. What is the situation really like there?

-There are the most difficult and intense battles, yes. Russia uses all its forces there, and what we do not want to happen in this war is happening: direct contact of face-to-face shooting. That is why we always tell our allies that we need weapons with sufficient and adequate strength for each situation. We need an increase in weapons to be able to get them out of the front positions and away.

Ukrainian servicemen fire a 2S7 Pion self-propelled gun towards Russian positions on a front line near Bakhmut in Donetsk region, Ukraine, January 24, 2023 (REUTERS/Oleksandr Ratushniak)
Ukrainian soldiers fire a 2S7 Pion self-propelled gun towards Russian positions on a front line near Bakhmut in the Donetsk region, Ukraine, on January 24, 2023 (REUTERS / Oleksandr Ratushniak) (STRINGER /)

-Why is Bakhmut so important?

-For several reasons. One: because there have been clashes there for 6 months and Russia has not been able to advance. Two: because you can’t leave behind a territory just like that. It is important that people understand that it is our territory, you cannot say: take this or take that. It would be very harmful for us and very positive for Russia, which is the aggressor country. Three: if a country wants to be respected, it has to know how to defend itself and not lie to itself trying to invent political causes to justify the losses. Ukraine is showing that we are going to fight very hard for every part of our land. Four and this is very important: fighting this battle gives us the possibility to destroy Russian troops very effectively. We have an armed structure there and our army is working very well. Russia put positions together and it is still working. She has the Wagner group and the prisoner combatants and all the rest. And we have to maximize our positions to be able to destroy all that, because when we start the counterattacks we will have less professional responses from the Russians. And that is one of the key goals. But beyond all this, the decisions on the front line are made by the general staff. They assess all the information very precisely and understand very well the resources we have and the resources the other has, and they know exactly what stage of the battle Bakhmut is at. That’s why I think the situation is under control. Russia does offensive actions because they have to show some results, but this stage of the war is about the strategic initiative, and for now it is in the hands of Ukraine, and that is how we want it to be until the end of the war.

-Finally, how are your political relations with Latin America? Do you feel you have received enough support from the region in general?

-The first thing I must say is that each country has the freedom and the right to evaluate this war and take the position it considers. And it depends on it whether he decides to help Ukraine or not. It is the right of each country to choose how it wants history books to be written in the future. Having said that, do you know what could be the most important aid from Latin America? Understand the nature of war. It is not about an abstract war for territory, nor about an abstract Russia that could come up with an economic proposal. What there is is a Russia that came to a foreign country to kill the people of that country and forbid them to have a country. And Ukraine a year ago is heroically defending its right to exist. The right of their people, the right to live as they want. Of course, it would be desirable that in Latin America they could look at their children and their wives and their parents and understand that this is the correct behavior. Ukraine defends its own, Russia came to kill someone else’s territory. That is why Russia has to lose this war. When we say that there is God in the heart, it is not just words, it is an understanding: who you are, what you are and what you are willing to do. Ukraine is willing to die for her children. I just want Latin America to understand this. That is going to be the greatest help we can receive, and what is going to help them forget Russia forever as a possible partner.

Photos and video: Franco Fafasuli

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