Editor’s Note: Ex-member of the Ukrainian parliament Sergii Leshchenko interviews ex-member of the Russian parliament Ilya Ponomarev for the Kyiv Post. Ponomarev fled Russia in 2014, after being the only lawmaker who voted against the annexation of Crimea. He has lived in the U.S. and Ukraine ever since. In 2019, Ponomarev became a Ukrainian citizen. He founded an oil and gas investment company Trident, and unsuccessfully competed for the right to extract natural gas from Ukraine’s offshore shelf in the Black Sea.
Sergii Leshchenko: In your opinion, what happened to Alexey Navalny?
Ilya Ponomarev: It is a mysterious story. Now as we are sitting near the German Embassy I don’t want to cast a shadow on Angela Merkel’s statements, although the idea of Novichok poisoning is rather far-fetched. I don’t understand what happened. I’ve been convinced that one should look in Tomsk for the roots (of poisoning) among those who are interested to prevent another one of Navalny’s investigations. I don’t believe that the Kremlin ordered it because I don’t understand why they would want it in the first place. It is counterproductive for them. The Kremlin’s entire line of behavior is to pretend that Navalny is non-existent, not to call him by his name, and to cast a shadow of possible cooperation with Russian special services on him — not to put him in jail, but rather to give him suspended sentences instead of real ones. This is how the authorities set him up all the time. What happened here is what the Russian authorities were trying to avoid — a huge information wave around Navalny.
Leshchenko: Stanislav Belkovsky (a Russian political technologist and analyst) says that with the protests happening in Khabarovsk, the poisoning of Navalny looks like an attempt to bring him down in the local elections…
Ponomarev: Publicly, Stas (Belkovsky) says the opposite. And it was during the protests in Khabarovsk where Navalny actually did not show himself very well, although he tried very hard. During the campaign for the regional elections he hasn’t been very successful either. He has just been to Novosibirsk, and I know from the inside how things went there: A man came to negotiate with United Russia to oust the CPRF (Communist Party of the Russian Federation), in order to get one associate into the city council. He tried, but wasn’t allowed to play such a game. But the Muscovites are not favored there. Although (Navalny’s) investigation into Novosibirsk developers has just been released, and it is clear who ordered (Navalny) to do it. (Editor’s note: Navalny’s team released on Aug. 31 a video investigation into the local authorities of Novosibirsk, which he was working on at the time of the poisoning)
But, no matter how it happened, someone poisoned him. There are so-called ‘Tomichi’ — notorious Tomsk-based secret services, but they would certainly not have done it with Novichok. Novichok is only possible at the federal level, it is too serious. (The Tomsk people) would have done it with something simple, like dichlorvos or arsenic.
Leshchenko: Putin is facing failure after failure: Minsk, Khabarovsk, Navalny… What are the consequences for Vladimir Putin in the world?
Ponomarev: Putin will face no immediate consequences from Navalny’s poisoning. It depends on what will happen to Alexei next. I don’t like him much, but I wish him recovery, we are on the same side of the barricades, despite the difference in views. If he recovers fast and gets in line, he will play it back to the full extent. He will have a new influx of members, donations, his Anti-Corruption Foundation will get a boost if he recovers. If there are serious health consequences and he is kicked out of the fight, Putin will benefit from it by removing a strong opponent and a boozer.
But the international community will do nothing. We saw the Sergei Skripal example which by all accounts was a more severe case — a British citizen was poisoned on British territory in a particularly dangerous way. A stranger died, meaning there was evidence of the use of weapons of mass destruction on British soil. And how did it end? With angry statements and the expulsion of several hundred diplomats. Then several hundred others replaced them. That’s it.
Leshchenko: So the story with Navalny will not stop Nord Stream 2 or Putin’s contacts with U.S. President Donald Trump contacts? And won’t make him more toxic?
Ponomarev: For Ukraine, it’s bad news in any way. Because it doesn’t matter if Putin or Navalny wins, Navalny is not a friend of Ukraine either. Everybody knows that Putin poisons his opponents, and in any American satire show you can see a bare-chested Putin pouring Novichok into his opponents’ drinks. And the Germans have already announced that this story will not affect Germany’s plans for Nord Stream 2.
Maybe this will speed up the adoption of the Magnitsky Pan-European Law. They voted for it in the European Parliament, but it has no real force. The national parliaments must vote on it. And they have voted in some Baltic and Scandinavian countries but nowhere else.
Leshchenko: Do you have an understanding of Putin’s short-term goals?
Ponomarev: His priority is Belarus. The whole story with the Russian amendments to the Constitution is Plan B for Putin. And Plan A is the annexation of Belarus, turning it into a union state to lead. That is his main plan and he is implementing it. For him, Ukraine isn’t the central point. Putin believes that time works for him. After all, (Volodymyr) Zelensky made such strong promises, and now Putin is waiting for “the body of his enemy” to float by. (Editor’s Note: Ponomarev refers to a proverb, “If you wait by the river long enough, the bodies of your enemies will float by.”)
Leshchenko: Who is the “enemy”?
Ponomarev: Zelensky. Either Petro Poroshenko will destroy him with his nationalistically minded comrades, or (Viktor) Medvedchuk will. Also Poroshenko in his attempts to remove Zelensky could potentially ensure that Medvedchuk gets more votes (in case of an election), and he will be able to at least control parliament.
Leshchenko: Do you think that Poroshenko and Medvedchuk are in cahoots?
Ponomarev: I don’t say in cahoots, they don’t need to declare it. There is a logic of calculation, they all pursue selfish interests. What is the difference between Ukraine and Russia? Any politician is selfish. In Russia, you can shush and say “Think about the state!” but in Ukraine it won’t work.
And those who shout the loudest about patriotism play in the other direction, and they weaken Ukraine the most. And what Zelensky says about the unity of the nation and its strength being in diversity is right.
Leshchenko: And of course, Zelensky’s mono-coalition where Medvedchuk has no role is the most unpleasant for Putin.
Ponomarev: Of course, it is!
Leshchenko: Medvedchuk and Putin didn’t have access to power in Ukraine. And Medvedchuk tries to reap the benefits he used to get during Poroshenko times, such as diesel or gas markets.
Ponomarev: Of course, Medvedchuk now doesn’t have points for bargaining. This is a huge achievement of Zelensky, which he doesn’t use.
Leshchenko: It seems that Zelensky is trying not to follow the path of breakthroughs, but to make the minimum number of errors that will inevitably happen.
Ponomarev: This isn’t natural for Zelensky. And that’s the main mistake. His strength is in his youth, energy and hope for a breakthrough. Zelensky’s main problem is his personnel policy, he doesn’t trust anyone. He doesn’t hire people who can make a breakthrough. This is his Achilles’ heel — a very weak team.
Leshchenko: Are you a citizen of Russia?
Ponomarev: I’m a citizen of Ukraine. I can’t lose the Russian citizenship due to specifics of the Russian law. As long as a criminal case is opened against you, you can’t withdraw from Russian citizenship.
I am pessimistic. Ukraine loses time and makes mistakes in the economic sphere, first of all in investment and industrial spheres. There are no people who are able to do this. For instance, even coronavirus has opened the possibility to transfer production from China. And Ukraine could catch this flow, I can see it. But no one is doing it.
Leshchenko: So you think we need an “investment nanny”?
Ponomarev: “Nanny” is an unfortunate word, it is hard to think of a worse one. But the idea is right. And I was one of the authors of this idea. I suggested calling it an “investment guide.” Because the nanny means that “we are cool here,” and investors are “idiots” who should be babysat. In fact, the situation is the opposite.
There is a lack of an institution that would accompany investors and open doors to them. It has to be done by strong people who have made investments themselves. They have to communicate with the investor in the same language. And they should put their money where their mouth is, know how to solve problems, etc. And there should not be many such people — one, two, three persons who have direct access to the president.
Leshchenko: So Poroshenko didn’t have such an “investment guide”?
Ponomarev: He didn’t. There were vested interests in areas. Under (Viktor) Yanukovych’s rule, it was easier and clearer. There was an understandable financial interest of Yanukovych’s family; you knew whom to address to solve the issues — and they would have been solved. For that, you gave half of the company shares. At Poroshenko’s, they were just playing for themselves. What they called “investment” was money from the IMF, EBRD, and other government organizations, for which the government, not you, will be responsible. Now there are people in power who sincerely want to do it differently. Zelensky sincerely wants foreign investment, but he has no one to lead it.
Leshchenko: What about Mikheil Saakashvili? Wasn’t he brought for this?
Ponomarev: Saakashvili was brought for the reforms. And for investments, they invited Levan Varshalomidze, former prime minister of Adjara region in Georgia. He is a good one because he worked in Georgia with big investors. But he still stands on the government’s side. In Ukraine, there is a lack of experience in attracting investments from private structures.
Leshchenko: Did you make any attempts to attract money for Ukraine?
Ponomarev: We have made the largest attraction of foreign investment for Ukraine in general. The only company that trades on NASDAQ and raised money for Ukraine is Trident Acquisitions (Editor’s Note: Trident Acquisitions is an oil and gas investment company where Ponomarev is founder and CEO). But it turned out that nobody needs it. We attracted $200 million, the money has been sitting in the bank account for two years without any movement, and it will be invested in other countries.
We were going to invest in energy independence, oil and gas production. The most important thing for Ukraine is to create a gas surplus. But nobody needs it. The main problem is the unreliability. The fundamental problem of Ukraine is that nobody is responsible for their words.
Leshchenko: Many are ready to invest in toxic assets, for example, in Mykola Zlochevsky’s, just because there is a large discount. (Editor’s Note: Zlochevsky is a controversial ex-minister and the owner of Burisma, an oil and gas company. In 2019, Ponomarev told NV.ua, a Ukrainian news site, that his company Trident was considering a merger with a large energy company in Ukraine or abroad. Burisma was one of three companies in Ukraine that were suited for such a merger, he said.).
Ponomarev: The question is what is more important for you — to punish, for example, Zlochevsky or make it all work. If I were a prime minister, I would get a bona fide clean foreign buyer who would develop and clean it up, for example, a joint venture project with KarpatyGaz, or to develop the Yuzivska Gas Field, which is not being developed and just stays there.
Leshchenko: Who slowed it down during Poroshenko’s rule?
Ponomarev: Let’s say it’s (Ihor) Kononenko. And don’t get me started on shale gas. (Editor’s Note: Kononenko is an ex-lawmaker, a long-time business partner and one of the closest allies of Poroshenko).
Leshchenko: If Ukraine can’t show a rapid economic growth, then maybe Ukraine could become a hub of democratization in the whole region because of the events in Belarus?
Ponomarev: The situation in Belarus is paradoxical, because under (Alexander) Lukashenko everything is relatively good there, unemployment is zero, industry is working, there is a model of high-tech development, and the main complaint about Batka (Lukashenko’s nickname that means “father”) is that he has been sitting there for 26 years. People are already fed up with stability and want change. If there is a normal revolution, there will be a normal European country, there is no problem. It is another thing that all candidates there are pro-Russian. And hopefully the change of power will not accidentally help Putin to become the ruler of the union state (as the result of revolution there) and the Russian troops won’t end up on the northern border of Ukraine. This is a great danger, and in any case, Ukraine can’t let the situation go on its own. There is our fellow Vitaly Shklyarov, an American citizen who is in Lukashenko’s prison, and Ukraine should have joined the campaign for his release, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said. Ukraine wants to be a beacon of freedom for the entire post-Soviet space, as Zelensky said, but this is more a word than a deed.
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