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The Guy Who Wants to Replace Zelensky
A former adviser to the Ukrainian president now wants the job for himself.
RECENT INTERNATIONAL COVERAGE of the war in Ukraine, some of it quite sobering or even pessimistic, has fueled tense debates and polemics in Ukraine: Will the West lean on Kyiv to negotiate with Moscow and accept a settlement that cedes at least some of Ukraine’s occupied lands? With President Volodymyr Zelensky’s term officially expiring next March, will Western concerns about the legitimacy of Ukrainian democracy force wartime presidential elections? Amid these controversies and speculations, one man’s name keeps coming up: Oleksiy Arestovych. The Zelensky adviser-turned-rival is not new to Ukrainian politics, but he has radically reinvented himself. His political fortunes may be a good barometer of where things are headed in Ukraine.
Ukrainian law forbids elections and referenda during periods of martial law, which Zelensky declared after Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022. While it may raise some democratic hackles, it makes sense: How is Ukraine supposed to hold a national election when millions of its citizens are under Russian occupation, displaced from their homes, or living temporarily in other countries? How are the authorities on the front lines supposed to know who is alive and who is dead? How are candidates and parties supposed to campaign? How are they to hold campaign events or in-person voting when any large gathering could become a target for a missile hit?
There are no good answers to these questions, but that hasn’t stopped Arestovych from announcing his candidacy with an ambitious program of reforms. Earlier this month, he unveiled a platform that includes aggressive anti-corruption measures, extensive judicial reform, an overhaul of the educational system, and other domestic initiatives that would move Ukraine closer to a modern market economy. But his proposals about the war got the most attention—and raised the most eyebrows.
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The former presidential adviser wants NATO membership for Ukraine. But he also argues that Ukraine should be willing to make some difficult tradeoffs for it—specifically, to accept a peace deal that leaves some 20 percent of Ukrainian territory under Russian control, with a commitment to seek the return of that territory only by political and diplomatic means. Arestovych freely concedes that it’s a bitter pill, but insists that he is simply offering his compatriots a dose of painful realism: Ukrainians must admit, he says, that the counteroffensive has failed, that the West is starting to suffer from Ukraine fatigue, and that restoring Ukraine’s 1991 borders—including Crimea, which has been among Ukraine’s stated goals in this war—is an impossibility for the time being.
ARESTOVYCH’S PAST ROLE IN UKRAINIAN PUBLIC LIFE, particularly in 2022 when he held an advisory post with Zelensky’s office, makes his rebranding as a bitter realist is all the more shocking. In the early and terrifying days of the war, when many expected a Russian blitzkrieg to succeed in toppling the government in Kyiv, he emerged as Ukraine’s national optimist, or even national therapist. His almost daily appearances on the YouTube streams of Russian expatriate blogger, lawyer, and activist Mark Feygin made him wildly popular; his natural charisma was buttressed by facility with a vast range of subjects from classical history and literature to pop culture and his experience as both an actor and a psychologist. Some of his comforting promises proved wrong; he claimed, for example, that the invasion would be over in two or three weeks and that the Russians would not take Mariupol.
It should be noted that before he was wrong, Arestovych was uncannily right. In a March 2019 interview, he had predicted a “full-scale war with Russia” no later than 2022. After the invasion that clip went viral for obvious reasons, enhancing Arestovych’s credibility and popularity. A March 2022 survey by the Ukrainian Institute for Politics named him Ukraine’s second-best-known and second-most popular politician, outranked only by Zelensky. Prominent Ukrainian broadcast and print journalist Dmitry Gordon, while harshly critical of Arestovych’s recent confrontational stance toward Zelensky, has continued to praise him for his earlier role:
I am very grateful to him, and I’m not the only one, for bringing reassurance to millions of Ukrainians with his soft-spoken, calm, level voice in the first few months of the war, for preserving hundreds of thousands from suicide, from depression, from horror, from nightmares, from fear. It took courage and internal fortitude [to do that] at the height of this war machine’s assault on Ukraine. . . . For that, he should be praised and honored.
Arestovych’s role as a Zelensky adviser ended abruptly in January of this year after he caused an outcry by saying on Feygin’s stream, apparently without evidence, that a Russian missile which killed dozens in Dnipro had fallen on a residential building after being shot down by Ukrainian air defense. Arestovych initially claimed he had misspoken due to fatigue but then posted a resignation letter on his Facebook page.
While Arestovych’s land-for-peace proposal is a dramatic departure from his earlier position, his stance on the relationship between Russia and Ukraine has been evolving for some time. In two interviews in April 2022, he expressed the startling view that a Russia led by jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny would be “many times worse” for Ukraine than Vladimir Putin’s Russia: It would be freer, but also smarter, more effective, and more powerful, and thus a much more dangerous opponent in almost unavoidable “geopolitical conflicts.” However, by the end of the year, he was willing to consider an alliance with the Russian opposition—not necessarily as friends, but as temporarily convenient allies against Putin—and to discuss future peaceful coexistence with Russia. And this past October, Arestovych not only spoke at a Russian opposition forum in Tallinn, Estonia, but told the Russian participants not to apologize for being Russian and denounced the tendency of some in Ukraine to write off all Russians as “fascists,” “scumbags,” or “slaves,” products of bad history or even defective genes. Such ideas, he said, amounted to “racial theory” or “fascism.”
These are valid insights. Arestovych’s peace proposal, however, seems like a nonstarter for several reasons. While he proposes East and West Germany as a model, there are striking differences. East Germany had internationally accepted borders. There are no such borders for the Russian-occupied Ukrainian territories. If the division of territory in a future deal is along the current front lines, Ukraine would have to leave its territories in Russian hands, and Russia would have to concede territories (including Kherson) that it formally annexed. It is far from clear that Putin is prepared to make such a concession. And even if he did, the arrangement would in effect reward his aggression—one of the outcomes the West wants to avoid.
For Ukraine, other complications abound. Ukrainian children living in annexed territories would be learning history from a new curriculum and a new textbook that treats Joseph Stalin in a largely positive light, vilifies the West as an eternal enemy, and frames Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a heroic act of liberation. Young adult males in the same territories would be drafted into the Russian Army. And that doesn’t even consider the massive population transfers that may already be under way in Russian-occupied territory.
The majority of Ukrainians, it is safe to say, would consider such a situation intolerable. A recent Gallup poll found that the share of Ukrainians who want to end the war as quickly as possible has increased by only 5 percentage points between September 2022 and August 2023, from 26 percent to 31 percent, still just half the share of the population that wants to fight until the war is won (60 percent, down from 70 percent a year ago). In an interview with the independent Russian-language outlet Meduza, Arestovych has said that he would explain to Ukrainians why restoring the country’s 1991 borders is impossible and, moreover, that “life will explain,” citing the poor results of the counteroffensive and in particular the failure to take Tokmak. But Ukrainians may not be prepared to listen: At the moment, Arestovych’s disapproval rating is 72 percent. Will his call for peace talks find more resonance if Ukraine’s situation becomes more dire? One may hope that we won’t find out.
WHAT EXPLAINS ARESTOVYCH’S about-face, which includes not only advocacy of a peace deal with Russia but harsh criticism of Zelensky and his government? In the Meduza interview, he has claimed that he was the target of “backstabbing” and insults from the Zelensky administration for a long time but patiently endured it all until the failures of the counteroffensive made him realize that Zelensky and his team were leading Ukraine toward disaster. Others tell a very different story: Mykhailo Podolyak, once Arestovych’s colleague as an adviser to Zelensky and a public spokesman for the president’s office, has blamed “frustrated ambition” and “narcissism.” There are also reports of recent personal conflicts between Arestovych and Zelensky (Arestovych traveled to the United States during Zelensky’s last visit in September, and Zelensky was supposedly annoyed by his ex-aide’s perceived attempt to glom on to his trip). Inevitably, there’s also speculation that Arestovych may be secretly working for the Kremlin—which, it should be said, includes him on a list of “terrorists”—or, more creatively, for shadowy people in the American “deep state” who want to pressure Ukraine into negotiations.
Perhaps Arestovych is genuinely convinced that the counteroffensive has been not just a failure but a catastrophic collapse, despite continuing incremental successes ranging from impressive strikes on the Russian Black Sea fleet to the establishment of a foothold on the Russia-controlled eastern bank of the Dnipro across from Kherson. He believes, among other things, that there’s a good chance Ukraine will lose Avdiivka and that the effort to recapture Bakhmut is a futile waste of lives. It is worth noting, however, that before his change of mind, Arestovych was one of the cheerleaders who helped build up high expectations that made the Ukrainian counteroffensive such a disappointment.
Perhaps the real answer is that, for all his intelligence and charisma, Arestovych is an oddball with a penchant for mischief and mystification. A look at his career shows some dizzying twists and turns. Nonetheless, he raises important issues, from corruption to curbs on the use of the Russian language in media and publishing, and makes thought-provoking if contentious points: for instance, that Ukraine should stop seeing itself solely as a victim of Russian oppression and acknowledge its own complicity in the power structures of both the Russian empire and the Soviet Union. Many believe he is making a deliberate play for that portion of the Ukrainian electorate which, while not pro-Kremlin, strongly identifies with Russian language and culture—a base that, while hardly sufficient to elect a president, could make Arestovych the head of an influential opposition bloc in Ukraine’s parliament. That could be an important and even positive role.
Right now, in his capacity as a gadfly, Arestovych may become a test for Ukrainian democracy—or a trump card for those who seek to discredit it. Arestovych is currently outside Ukraine, his precise whereabouts unknown; he has told Meduza that he is constantly traveling and taking part in various forums and conferences. He says that for the moment he does not intend to return to Ukraine because he fears political persecution. While Meduza noted that his claims of persecution are unproven, there are, unfortunately, those in Ukrainian public life who seem intent on validating these claims. After his comments at the Russian opposition conference in September condemning anti-Russian bigotry, Ukrainian parliament member Oleh Dunda suggested that his speech should be “examined by our law enforcement” and that Arestovych should go directly to jail upon returning to Ukraine. And yesterday, acting on a complaint from twenty-nine parliament members, the authorities in Kyiv charged the former Zelensky aide with making a false report—a charge related to his accusation of “incitement of ethnic hostility” against a parliament member who berated a teenage street singer in Lviv this past summer for singing a song by a Russian musician.
Obviously, this is nothing compared to the persecution of the opposition in Russia. Even so, it’s important for Ukraine to have Arestovych as a free voice of dissent in a free society, not an opposition figure in exile. Ukrainian democracy can and should pass this test.