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Arestovych: Even a nuclear attack won’t break Ukrainians

Oleksii Arestovych, 24 February 2022 (Source: President.gov.ua / https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/deed.en)

We will hold the front in the east until the land in the south dries up. Then we will move with a counteroffensive to Crimea and Melitopol. Once we start shelling military facilities on the peninsula and civilians start fleeing en masse, Russia’s ultimate defeat will become obvious” – says Oleksii Arestovych, former advisor to the Chief of Staff of the Ukrainian President.

Maciej Pieczyński: In one of your interviews you said: “If it wasn’t for Poland, we would no longer be among the living. Poland saved Ukraine.” What can Warsaw get in return?

Oleksii Arestovych: Poland should support Ukraine so that it does not become Ukraine itself. If we were to lose, Russia will become much more powerful in five years than it is now. There would be thousands of Ukrainians in the ranks of the Russian army, recruited under coercion or after being brainwashed. And the question: who would be the next victim?

Do you think Russia would dare to invade a NATO country?

It’s unclear what kind of mood she would be in after conquering Ukraine. Perhaps there would not be a full-scale invasion of Poland. It would strike through cyberattacks, diplomatic pressure, secret service operations, and propaganda. It would threaten military aggression, and this potential threat alone would severely damage Poland. You would have to spend more and more on armaments, shift the economy to war conditions…

Putin claims that Russians and Ukrainians are one nation. He has never said that Russians and Poles are one nation. He does not seem to have plans to conquer Poland.

It would be enough for him to recognize Poland as his sphere of influence. Let’s remember how this war started. The Kremlin demanded that NATO withdraw its troops from countries that joined the pact after 1997, including Poland.

And can Warsaw derive any economic benefit from supporting Kiev? Will our companies get contracts to rebuild Ukraine? Or will the Germans get them after all?

If there is any competition you should fear, it is not from the Germans, but from the Americans. But I am sure that Polish business will receive favorable contracts in Ukraine. Kiev’s relations with Warsaw are too close and objectively important. It is no coincidence that Polish citizens have been given the same rights and privileges as Ukrainians in Poland.

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky during a TV speech, March 14, 2022 (Source: President Of Ukraine)

True, but there are fewer Poles in Ukraine than Ukrainians in Poland, so it’s not such a favorable privilege.

After the war, Poles will be able to come en masse to Ukraine and invest here. I don’t see any other way to rebuild Ukraine’s arms industry except in cooperation with Warsaw. Some enterprises, for security reasons, could move to Polish territory. I also believe in the potential of a Polish-Ukrainian alliance to monopolize transit between Asia and Europe, the Black Sea, and the Baltic Sea.

Some time ago you publicly said: “Poles agreed to forget about the so-called Volhynian massacre in the name of good relations with Ukraine.” How do you know this? Who specifically and in what form agreed?

I heard an unofficial assurance that Poland would forget or at least for a while stop reminding people of the Volhynian massacre. It sounded more or less like this: “We now have an ideal opportunity to stop living in the past and start thinking about the future. The future benefits of the alliance are more important than past wrongs.” This was a private conversation with Polish officials, so I can’t divulge the details.

And did the Polish side ever try to influence Zelensky to apologize for the Volhynian slaughter or to make any gesture to the Poles on the anniversary of the event?

I have not heard of anything of the sort.

Zelensky, as a Russian-speaking Jew, has never been an apologist for Bandera and has not had to look at the nationalist electorate. So maybe he would have made some kind of gesture on Volhynia if the Poles had firmly asked for it?

I am no longer part of Zelensky’s team, so I cannot speak on his behalf. But if it were up to me, I would propose the following solution to the problem: a mutual apology for the crimes committed by Ukrainians against Poles and vice versa, the erection of monuments to the tragic events, and annual ceremonies during which the Polish President would lay flowers on the graves of murdered Ukrainians, and the Ukrainian President would lay flowers on the graves of murdered Poles.

But there is no symmetry of blame between us. Ukrainians murdered far more Poles than vice versa. The Volhynian slaughter was officially recognized by the Parliament as genocide. Would Kiev agree to such a stance?

First, a Polish-Ukrainian commission should be convened to jointly establish the historical truth. And only on this basis make political decisions.

It will be difficult to establish something jointly if Polish historians are talking about a planned anti-Polish operation and genocide, while Ukrainian historians such as Volodymyr Viatrovych claim that Volhynia is really a Polish-Ukrainian war, in which the blame is distributed equally, with the Poles being the party responsible.

Today, Viatrovych is a politician, not a historian. He works for a niche, radical electorate. I would not see such people in the composition of the commission. Moreover, its work could be mediated by representatives of third countries. Let’s say, we determine that 100,000 Poles and only 50,000 Ukrainians were killed. Does this mean that the Polish monument should be twice as high as the Ukrainian one? This is not serious. If researchers determine that Ukrainians are more culpable, then the Ukrainian president can add a few more words of apology to his speech.

This year will mark 80 years since the Volhynian crime. Can you imagine that Zelensky, through at the Poles’ request, simply apologizes for the slaughter?

I don’t know, but I think it would be a very strong and mature step.

How strong is the cult of Bandera and Shukhevych in Ukraine today? What would be the reaction if Poland demanded that Kiev condemn these figures?

Little is said about Shukhevych. Bandera is a symbol of the fight against Russian aggression. We use him to troll the Russians. I don’t remember anyone in Ukraine mentioning Bandera in an anti-Polish context after the war broke out. His cult does not have a state-wide character in Ukraine. People cannot be forbidden to worship their heroes. Any condemnation of Bandera at the state level would trigger public protests. Ideally, the authorities should not say anything about him – neither good nor bad. And when asked about his assessment, the official answer should be: “He is a very complex figure, let’s wait for the findings of historians.”

Thanks to the war, are new Ukrainian heroes growing who can take the place of the old ones?

Personally, I am in favor of hero worship that unites across divisions. Such as Hryhoriy Skovoroda [Ukrainian 18th century philosopher and writer – Ed.], Korolyov (Soviet spaceship designer, born in Ukraine), Gen. Zaluzhny, or the Ukrainian prisoner of war recently executed by the Russians for saying “glory to Ukraine.” I believe that if there is an open wound between nations, it should be closed so that both sides are satisfied as much as possible. A full agreement cannot be reached. There must be some compromise. Let’s think about the future. Certainly, arguments must be taken away from those who try to use the Volhynia topic politically on both sides.

Or at least Kiev should lift the ban on the exhumation of Polish victims of Volhynia?

Definitely. Every person deserves a dignified burial. There should be a special institute for exhumations, to determine the number of both Polish and Ukrainian victims.

You propose renaming Ukraine “Rus-Ukraine.” The idea is for Kiev to symbolically take away Moscow’s claim to the legacy of the former Kievan Rus’. Russia is now considered its sole successor, while in fact all three eastern Slavic nations sprang from this ancient root. In your opinion, the authorities in Kiev should convince the world that the only heir of Rus is Ukraine, while Russia is actually a continuation of the Mongol-Tartar empire. That is, it is a savage Asian despot that on February 24th, 2022, did exactly what its medieval predecessors did in the 13th century – that is, it invaded Ruthenia. Why all this?

Ukrainian tanks during an operation in eastern part of the country, 2014 (Source: Wikimedia Commons/Ministry of Defense of Ukraine)

Putin, in justifying his aggression against Ukraine, spoke practically exclusively about history, about the fact that Ukrainians are supposedly part of the Russian nation. By calling ourselves Rus, we refute the Kremlin’s entire argument. The Ukrainian state was established not in 1991, but in 988, when the Ruthenian prince Vladimir the Great was baptized. The legacy of Kievan Rus is a huge asset that can help unite the nation under a common symbolism. The name “Rus’” is associated with Russia, so it will catch the ear of a Ukrainian from the south or east of the country. Ukrainian patriots from Galicia won’t be offended either, as the word “Ukraine” will remain in the name. If we succeed in reclaiming the name “Rus’,” we will thus deprive Russia of an important part of its symbolic capital and deprive it of arguments justifying its great-country ambitions.

Then, too, you can tell the Russians: “Your capital is Kiev, not Moscow. Leave us alone, and preferably join us.” Sounds a bit like Ukrainian imperialism.

No, it’s more like a struggle for primacy. By doing so, we are telling them that we are the real Russkies [russkiy in Russian is both a resident of Rus and an ethnic Russian – Ed.]. and that they should not invade the cradle of their own statehood. In addition, they need to be made aware that the language of ancient Rus more closely resembles modern Ukrainian than modern Russian. Thus, it is Ukrainian that is truly Ruthenian! And it is the Russians who are the younger brothers of the Ukrainians, not the other way around. With the help of such argumentation, Russians can be dragged to Kiev’s side and thus weaken Moscow’s imperialism. Besides, if Russia ever disintegrates, someone will have to manage its European part…who then, if not the real Russians?

You work with many Russian liberals. Do you believe that one day Russia will become a peaceful, pro-Western democracy without imperial ambitions?

Personally, I don’t believe in the success of liberal Russia, but you have to give it a chance. Joe Biden did just that. During a speech in Warsaw, he addressed the Russians, saying that this is not their war, but Putin’s war, that the West does not consider the entire Russian people as the enemy. I share this view.

But most Russians support the invasion.

Yes, but let’s remember that they are stupefied by Putin’s propaganda. Russian liberals must be helped to take power. If that doesn’t work, then the partition of Russia must be pursued.

What kind of future do you see for Russia?

Putin will sooner or later be overthrown as a result of a palace coup, carried out by Siloviks in cooperation with pro-Kremlin liberals. Some sort of collective authority will begin to rule, which will put all the blame for the war on Putin. Russia will start negotiating with the West for the lifting of sanctions.

What about Ukraine then?

After Putin is overthrown, Russia will give us back Crimea.

Unlikely. Crimea is too important for the Russians.

We plan to take back Crimea militarily. However, if Russia wants to return to normal relations with the West after Putin’s overthrow, it will have to give back the peninsula without a fight.

You are against forced Ukrainianization, banning the Russian language or fighting the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. But how else is Kiev supposed to fight the Kremlin’s agent?

Ukrainian is the only state language. But the problem with the Russian language in Ukraine is not a question of language, but a question of freedom. Bilingualism can be considered an advantage. We need to ensure that Ukrainians speak English, and at the level of everyday life I would leave freedom of choice to everyone else. As for the Orthodox Church, individual priests who collaborate with the occupation should be punished. Repression of the entire Orthodox Church will only discourage those of its followers who are on our side.

Burning vehicle on a road from Kharkiv to Kyiv, February 2022 (Source: Public Domain/Voice of America/Yan Boechat)

Were there any chances to avoid an invasion? If the West had agreed to Moscow’s December 2021 demands, or if Ukraine had declared it would never join NATO – would Russia have struck anyway?

Everything has long been decided. The decision to invade was made in July 2005. I was in Moscow at the time and spoke with people dealing with the Ukrainian direction. I can assure you that they were already determined to go to war then. They were already starting preparations for the invasion. And we were acting like food on a Russian plate. We were doing everything to get them to invade us. We should have been much more serious about preparing the armed forces for defense. We should have built up such a military power that the enemy would not consider invading at all.

What are your predictions for the development of the situation on the front?

We will hold the front in the east until the land in the south dries up. Then we will move with a counteroffensive to Crimea and Melitopol. Once we start shelling military facilities on the peninsula and civilians start fleeing en masse, Russia’s ultimate defeat will become obvious. Putin will be left with only nuclear weapons. I doubt he would use them, because China and India would be against it. A single nuclear attack won’t do him any good, and a mass one would threaten to radioactively contaminate half of Europe. The West will not allow it. The Americans have already announced that they would destroy the entire Russian troop buildup in Ukraine in response to the use of nuclear weapons. This would mean the end of Russia as an empire. Two months ago, Washington declared that Crimea is Ukrainian. Consequently, we can quietly plan to recapture it. And once we hit Crimea, the jewel in Putin’s crown, he will have only two choices: either full de-escalation or full escalation. Since the Americans allow us to fight for the peninsula, it means they are ready for an escalation scenario.

Suppose you attack Crimea, and Putin drops a nuclear bomb on Kiev in response. And then what?

300,000, maybe 500,000 people will die. Ukraine will not stop fighting. It will continue the counteroffensive. According to polls, 89% of Ukrainians do not intend to surrender even after a nuclear attack. Mariupol looks like an impact of 10 tactical nuclear warheads. And what – we surrendered because of that?

Poland is the main center of aid to Ukraine. Are we in danger of a nuclear attack too?

Unrealistic scenario. A guy who is getting a manicure, a facelift, and is receiving guests while sitting at the other end of the table will not annihilate the world in a nuclear apocalypse.

(…)

This interview was published in March 2023 in “Do Rzeczy” magazine.