“Ukraine Must Become Freest Country in Eastern Europe” – Director of Institute for Strategic Studies
19 October, 2019

Oleksandr Lytvynenko is the new director of the National Institute for Strategic Studies. Previously, from 2014, he was the Deputy Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine (NSDC). He also took a major part in writing the previous National Security Strategy for Ukraine. According to a new law, the institute must prepare a new strategy six months after the inauguration of the president – that is, by the middle of November.

Though this discussion is aimed at the future, Hromadske asked about how decisions are made at the NSDC, in particular, the implementation of martial law following Russian aggression in the Kerch Strait, as well as sanctions against Russia and the ban on Russian social networks.


For nearly five and a half years, you were the Deputy Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council – now you’re the Director of the National Institute for Strategic Studies. What key piece of advice do you have for the new secretary of the NSDC?

They need to develop the analytical potential of the NSDC, and the president needs to correctly and precisely use this crucial and delicate instrument he has. The NSDC is not a separate organization, it works for the president, in order for him to fulfill his responsibilities as head of the NSDC. 

It’s important to establish communications with the leadership of the security and defense sectors. They should be necessary for the president and members of the council as a communicator that connects everything and sets the agenda.

Is there any work you did at the NSDC that you’ll continue working on at the institute? Where will you be useful?

Developing governmental competence in defense and security, researching the doctrinarian approach of Russians to wielding their external influence. In layman’s terms – how the Russians see the realization of their external influence – in war, in energy supplies, in information: how they see this, how they use the tools they have. Which procedures, which methods, how they react to changes in new situations.

Director of the National Institute for Strategic Studies Oleksandr Lytvynenko at the hromadske studio, Kyiv, September 2, 2019

Photo: hromadske

What’s the most important goal for the country right now?

The most important result we’ve achieved in the past five years is the fact that we’ve survived as an independent state. And that gives us an important motivation for the future: if we don’t become the freest country in this part of the world, we’ll lose, and we’ll disappear.

There are too many obstacles in our way: demographics, geopolitics, our own economic development. The only thing that can be attractive about Ukraine is our freedom. We’re a poor country, a very poor country, the poorest European country. But we can become much freer. Even in comparison with the United Kingdom, where I had the honor to live for the past year, where there are a lot of restrictions. We have the unique chance to become freer.

What does that mean? Because the opposite has happened – there’s this feeling that for the past few years we’ve been faced with the point-blank question: either liberty or security.

This is a very complicated balance. We can provide liberty and security only in an independent Ukrainian state – that’s the first point.

Secondly, we’ll survive only if we provide for development. But you can’t encourage development without freedom. That’s crucial. Some restrictions are necessary, but they should be clear and minimal. There should be a minimum of grey areas, where someone decides for you, like what we have today.

And third: we should be completely open to the world, primarily in cultural and informational spheres. 

Our purpose in the past few years can be called the emancipation from Russian culture. A lot of people are seeing the value in denying this culture. From my point of view, the problem isn’t denying Russian culture. It’s hard to deny that Russian culture is one of the world’s great cultures, but it’s only one of them. There’s English culture, and German culture, and Spanish, and Polish, and Italian. And we’ll be helping our future if we understand that it’s a big world. 

In the conditions of foreign – Russian – aggression, there was always this argument: your freedom will cost us our security. So what does this mean for security, defense, humanitarian concerns, if we don’t just stick to things like language, media, and the cultural sphere?

We have very opposing approaches. For example, news broadcasting – there is the problem of monopolization. We can see that the time has come to create a new media law, to minimize monopoly power, to minimize the possibility of monopolization, by creating more effective mechanisms to destroy the possibility of cartel collusion. 

Regarding the restrictions: in the short term, restrictions can be very effective. But in the long term, they fail to bring positive effects. That’s because banning something is very easy to do. But we need to maintain a balance and open ourselves up more. [Mikhail] Saltykov-Shchedrin (19th century Russian satirist -ed.) had a good phrase: “administrative rapture.” A lot of people have caught this “administrative rapture.”

The Azov Sea is de facto occupied. What would you advise if right now the NSDC was told to figure out a way to move our forces to Mariupol through the Kerch strait?

We have to strengthen our position in the Azov Sea. The question is, of course, how to do this. But that’s not a question for me. That’s a question for specialists, sailors, soldiers.

For us, it’s extremely important to expand and assist the freedom of shipping. And that’s not only our priority, but for the entire international community. And regarding strengthening our presence in the Azov Sea – this is undoubtedly true.

What conclusions were drawn after the incident on the Kerch Strait? What are the next steps?

First off – we need to find a solution to the humanitarian questions and to return our sailors home. People were following orders, but they de facto became prisoners of war -- and, in principle, even de jure -- and they need to be returned home.

We also need to continue our legal case regarding the Azov Sea. We need to ensure that our interests are respected: to ensure free access of our vessels to the Berdyansk and Mariupol ports, to defend our fishing and bioresource interests, as well as defend our coasts from possible provocations and aggressive actions. For the Black Sea, our requirements are higher.

Ukrainian ships Berdyansk, Nikopol and Yany Kapu's tugboat seized by Russia in Kerch port in annexed Crimea, November 26, 2018

We noted that right now we’re in another phase of the war with Russia. How would you recommend to work with the Normandy format, and the Minsk agreements? Some say that they’re just obsolete. And the fact of the matter is not whether or not these methods work. The Minsk agreements were supposed to stop the hot phase of the war. What do we do next?

These agreements did stop this phase. Our strategic interests in the very complicated relationship with the Russian Federation, in our war with the Russian Federation are in the protection of the state sovereignty of Ukraine, its independence, and the gradual restoration of our territorial integrity. With those things in mind, we can see the need to create a new policy in relation to Russia.

We’re a lot weaker than Russia in our potential. The only chance we have is to attract partners for help. We don’t have allies in the legal sense, we have only partners.

The next interest for us is very important – it’s defending our development. Continuing the war in Donbas the way it is now is severely restricting our development. On the other hand, integration of Donbas on Russian conditions, changing the Constitution – this is unacceptable for our government, as it can once again provoke internal conflicts inside the country. And it wouldn’t secure the most important thing: economic development, as well as the development of the humanitarian needs of our citizens.

I want to note that Crimea for us is a crucial issue. Ukraine will never abandon our claim on the peninsula, where Ukrainian citizens live. We have to try with all of our strength to defend their rights and legal interests.

Have your positions changed over time? When the discourse was on humanitarian topics – for example, things like welfare benefits, pensions, the Ministry of Social Policy always said: “These are all the positions of the security cabinet, of the NSDC.” But we haven’t seen humanitarian questions gain priority at the NSDC.

I’m not entirely in agreement with you. I do agree that far from everything was done – that’s where the idea of humanitarian-logistic centers came about – which, unfortunately, haven’t started working.

Have you changed your conclusions as well? Say, for example, whether there’s a need to pay pensions in Donbas, as a tool to recapture the hearts and minds of people, as an obligation to our citizens.

I don’t think that we need to talk about recapturing hearts and minds, and fight for their minds. People have rights that we need to try to defend in whatever form we can right now and right here. 

Compare the situation in Donetsk and even in the Joint Forces Operation zone (former ATO – ed.) We managed to keep our lives, in most of the country, normal. In the Minsk agreements, which, to put it lightly, are not ideal – but still managed to play a serious role in stopping the peak of the violence – there is an issue of determining the necessity of social payments. Let’s work on it.

Director of the National Institute for Strategic Studies Oleksandr Lytvynenko at the hromadske studio, Kyiv, September 2, 2019

Photo: hromadske

But we’re not talking about the first, or second year of the conflict, but the fifth. What stopped us all these years? We constantly heard that the question was specifically with the security cabinet.

A lot was done to stabilize the situation from 2014 to 2019. Could more have been done? Of course. Otherwise, we would have had a different result in the recent elections.

Let’s try fulfilling those documents we’ve signed. We don’t have others at the moment.

Could “Minsk” be modernized? Of course. Could some other agreement be signed? The President has set the following task: to prepare and develop new approaches. But right now we have a formula which should be realized. That same Minsk process, of course, gets a lot of criticism, but within its confines, there are a lot of things that seem insignificant, but are actually extremely relevant and important things – within the economic area, within security, and humanitarian concerns. And even the political, which is constantly under discussion.

President Zelenskyy said he had spoken with Vladimir Putin at the request of relatives of Ukrainian sailors. Some people specifically advise the president under no circumstances to partake in direct talks with Putin. Have you analyzed how Russia works and whether it is easy to fall into the Kremlin's trap?

I think the president will decide for himself. This is his constitutional right. Secondly, in this situation, the incomparability of our potentials allows us to hope for better results, provided that these negotiations are mediated and internationalized.

And what are the risks and caveats? Many people try to get a Russian guarantee, which then does not work ...

The fact is that the Russians take very seriously, responsibly and professionally any negotiations and any external communication. They are seriously working on this, they have a fairly powerful diplomatic service, a very powerful intelligence community, a powerful analytical structure. And they apply it.

It goes without saying that their potential is significantly higher than ours. Money-wise, for instance. On the other hand, we must clearly understand that, despite all the good words I say, they often make mistakes. So with direct negotiations – in one case it is worth it, in the other case it is not worth it.

Director of the National Institute for Strategic Studies Oleksandr Lytvynenko at the hromadske studio, Kyiv, September 2, 2019

Photo: hromadske

Is the economic blockade of Donbas justified?

The blockade was introduced in very specific conditions in response to the takeover of enterprises and, on the other hand, under severe internal pressure. It cost Ukraine big enough money, even as a percentage of GDP.

This blockade was introduced by the NSDC decision and secured by relevant decisions of the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine. I would urge you to approach this issue very carefully. The situation has changed somewhat.

Understandably, when it comes to any kind of economic relationship, those relationships should not occur with the captured businesses. We should also be very clear about the fact that the blockade might be much more justified if we did not have a huge border with Russia in these quasi-entities.

Did you say that when you worked at the NSDC?

Very big discussions had been going on about the blockade, believe me. But it was approved without great joy.

And how were strategic decisions at the NSDC made back then?

It's hard for me to say that. Although formally the deputy position is political, I have never been a politician and do not aspire to this role. We need to make a very clear distinction: the NSDC, which consists of 15, 17, or 12 politicians – in different years, different numbers of people -- who make decisions, and a civil servant apparatus that prepares those decisions and offers options. Political decisions are taken by the Parliament.

From left to right: Vladimir Putin, Francois Hollande, Petro Poroshenko, Angela Merkel and Alexander Lukashenko, signing of the Donbas ceasefire agreement in Minsk, February 11, 2015

How were decisions made about, say, blockades or martial law?

It’s politicians who make the most important decisions. This is their political role. Many decisions were made as a result of political discussions. Some solutions were offered by the leadership team.

The very issue of martial law is very complex. There was a lot of talk and paperwork in 2014, 2015 and 2018. Speaking about the November situation in 2018, there was a meeting of the war cabinet, after which the apparatus staff were summoned to draw up the decision of the highest military-political leadership of the state to introduce martial law, which was submitted to the meeting of the National Security and Defense Council, which accepted the relevant proposals and applied them together with the president. He formalized it by his decree, in accordance with the law on martial law, and introduced it to the Parliament. After that, during the political discussions, the duration of martial law changed from 60 days to 30 days.

If there is a justification that martial law should be for two months, what compromises are there to make?

This is a political decision. 60 days – as the military said, who prepared it – was the minimum time needed. The politicians agreed on the 30 days.

Director of the National Institute for Strategic Studies Oleksandr Lytvynenko at the hromadske studio, Kyiv, September 2, 2019

Photo: hromadske

How effective are Ukrainian sanctions against Russia?

I have been and continue to be a supporter of the fact that this law needs to be substantially amended. The procedure for applying sanctions is extremely cumbersome. Specific names, tax numbers, and firm names are determined by the NSDC decision. The NSDC cannot congregate every day.

Let's be honest: according to law, the NSDC to a large extent acts as a postman. The Security Service of Ukraine, the Cabinet of Ministers, the National Bank submit their proposals, which are huge stacks of papers, huge documents, which are very difficult to check even for the apparatus, let alone for top leadership, which are accepted by the NSDC and then signed by the President.

My personal point of view, which I expressed, is that the NSDC should make political decisions, such as: "Ukraine should impose sanctions regarding the Kerch Bridge", and instruct the Cabinet to determine a specific list: who, what firms, physical and legal entities that may be subject to sanctions.

The second question is to establish a more effective mechanism for compliance with these sanctions. At present, there is actually no penalty for non-compliance.

Why did Ukraine adopt sanctions against Russia later than the West?

All state-imposed sanctions, especially the U.S. ones, are aimed at protecting the U.S. and E.U. national interests. They stipulate, in particular, for following the liberal world order that was formed after the Second World War.

And in essence – to influence the behavior of the offender, so that it changes this behavior. The U.S., E.U. are huge economies that are more than 10 times larger than the economy of the Russian Federation. Russia's economy is $1.3 trillion, the U.S. economy is $17 trillion. And the effect of sanctions on the Russian Federation, the negative effect is much greater for the Russians than for, say, the Europeans.

Our economy is 11-12 times smaller than the Russian economy. Accordingly, we had to and still must exercise extreme caution in applying these sanctions. Well, for example, the sanctions that, from my point of view, are effective are the sanctions in the defense-industrial complex, the termination of cooperation. We lost a lot of money, but we had to do it.

There were sanctions complex in terms of values – against the Russian social networks. You remember the huge scandal they caused. I still think it's a justified decision. Moreover, these sanctions are more likely to be of precautionary value and anyone who wishes can circumvent these prohibitions. On the other hand, they have significantly reduced the audience of these Russian networks.

The question was why they were taken without a court decision and how lists of sites and journalists were formed. Could this have been done differently?

This was done on the basis of a proposal by the SBU and the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine.

But there were no sanctions against journalists. When sanctions were imposed on several journalists for the first time, this decision was reversed literally within a day.

How realistic is our accession to NATO in the near future?

We need serious security and defense reforms. And also the realization that not everything depends on us. We will only join NATO: when our accession to NATO will increase the security of the Alliance, not reduce it.

Our problems are our problems only. No one will solve our problems for us. Talking about shared values ​​doesn't work. And when we often promise and do not deliver on them …

President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy (left) and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg during a meeting in Brussels, Belgium, June 4, 2019

President Zelenskyy said a census was needed. How critical is it?

I absolutely support this decision. We need to know how many of us there are, where we live, the age, social, gender structure of our population.

There aren’t 52 million of us?

Modern statistics says that there are 41 million of us. Lots of talk about migration. How many Ukrainian citizens work abroad?

The new prime minister has said that an inventory count of the country is needed. What is it and how will you be involved?

We need to find out our assets and our liabilities, weaknesses and strengths. Determine who does what, how the authority overlaps, which structures are needed, which are not.

For example, there were solutions like a de facto elimination of sanitary epidemiology, in particular, which contributed to epidemic problems.

On the other hand, there are still plenty of licensing and regulatory things to change. We need to take weighed decisions. We can’t say: let’s destroy this, and this, and this.

The new team calls themselves libertarians and talks about privatization. Are there any strategic objects?

You have to be careful about everything, but I strongly support the overall approach of maximum privatization. We are facing such a difficult situation with Motor Sich in particular.

You have to be very careful about this. Many businesses in the defense complex, for example, are located in the city centers. Selling real estate would probably be much more effective than continuing to operate it. But these components, this equipment, these devices, these types of weapons are necessary. These businesses may need to be out of town, but this should be done without interrupting production.

Director of the National Institute for Strategic Studies Oleksandr Lytvynenko at the hromadske studio, Kyiv, September 2, 2019

Photo: hromadske

There was a big scandal with Oleh Hladkovskyi. He was the first deputy secretary of the NSDC. What exactly did he do at the NSDC?

He was engaged in the defense-industrial complex.

You worked together for several years. Did you know about those dealings?

The NSDC apparatus, any component of the security and defense sector is a structure where the rule is that you know what you need. You don't know too much – you don't need to know it.

You graduated from the Russian Federal Intelligence Service's academy. You've gone through some transformation. How did it affect your outlook?

I graduated in Applied Mathematics. I was admitted to the KGB High School in 1989 and graduated from the Federal Counterintelligence Service Academy, Institute of Cryptography, Communications and Informatics. In terms of quality engineering education, it is a very serious school. I still understand the basic approaches. I've been away from this for 21 years.

In terms of transformation, comparing me to me 25 years ago and even 10 years ago, we are completely different people. I learned from that education that the Russian system is very serious. They must be treated with great respect – respect as the enemy. It is a self-replicating system that will pursue its interests.

We often forget about other components of the Russian system: the Foreign Ministry, the General Staff. Russia will not come apart tomorrow. This is a factor we must coexist with and look for a way out. To obey is not the way out. We could disappear. Not one people, not one society, not one state has disappeared. We can be trapped without chance for development. However, we do have chances. I hope we have a future. Modern literature, world-class scientists, we have preserved a good mathematical school, there are some pockets in technical competencies. And most importantly – we have the people. We can build on this.