Mar 24, 2022 - World

Zelensky chief of staff expresses "cautious optimism" about talks with Russia

 President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy (L) and head of the Office of the President Andriy Yermak are pictured during the President's address to the US Congress, Kyiv, capital of Ukraine.
Volodymyr Zelensky and Andriy Yermak are pictured during the Ukrainian president's address to the U.S. Congress, from Kyiv, Ukraine. Photo: Ukrinform/Future Publishing via Getty Images

Andriy Yermak, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky's chief of staff, on Thursday said there was progress in the ceasefire negotiations with Russia and expressed “cautious optimism” about the possibility of a diplomatic breakthrough to end the war.

Why it matters: Yermak is Zelensky's closest aide and one of the most powerful and influential government officials in the country.

  • Before being appointed as the head of the presidential administration, he was Zelensky’s foreign policy adviser in charge of the Russia file.

Driving the news: Yermak spoke for an hour in a joint Zoom interview with four Israeli reporters.

  • He talked about the ceasefire negotiations, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s mediation efforts and about working alongside the Ukrainian president in the month since Russia invaded Ukraine.

State of play: Yermak said the talks with Russia were difficult at first, with the Russian officials speaking in ultimatums, but as the weeks passed, a real dialogue started.

  • “It is still difficult and not easy and there is a question whether we can reach an agreement. But there is progress and we think the moment when the two leaders can meet is getting closer," Yermak said.
  • “We have cautious optimism. The negotiations are ongoing and there are things we think we can agree on. The most important things for us are stopping the war, withdrawing all Russian forces and creating a new security framework for Ukraine," he added.
  • Yermak said a meeting between Zelensky and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin is needed because it is the only way to tackle the real thorny issues.

The big picture: Putin has so far refused to meet directly with Zelensky.

  • Moscow has demanded that Ukraine declare neutrality, rule out future NATO membership and give up all claims to Crimea and the Donbas "republics."

Yermak made it clear several times during the interview that Ukraine will not agree to any territorial concessions in Donbas or Crimea.

  • "We are not going to give anything that is ours. People who were at war for 30 days won’t allow this to happen. We don’t want one meter of Russian territory. We just want our territory back," he added.

Behind the scenes: Yermak said Zelensky sleeps four to five hours every night.

  • The Ukrainian president speaks to about 10 foreign leaders every day, has meetings with government ministers, military commanders and heads of the intelligence and security services, Yermak said.
  • Recently, Zelensky has given a speech almost every day to different countries' legislative bodies. On Thursday, he addressed the NATO summit via video link.
  • “I was at the office at 6am the day the first missiles were fired," Yermak said.
  • "The president was already there when I arrived. Since then we haven’t left," he added. "The president works 20 hours a day, but stays focused and energetic. During the last months, I haven’t seen the president lose his cool or [be] scared."

What to watch: Zelensky’s chief of staff said he hopes Belarus won’t join the war alongside Russia. He stressed Ukrainian intelligence services say the Belarusian army commanders don’t want to fight Ukraine.

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