Andriy Yermak, President Volodymyr Zelensky’s close friend, was appointed head of presidential office on Feb. 11. He previously served as Zelensky’s top aide, successfully leading the president’s communications with foreign leaders.
Yermak played a major role in Zelensky’s relations with Russia by taking an active part in the Sept. 7 prisoner swap, when Ukraine and Russia exchanged 35 captives each. His dealings with Russia go even further: investigative journalists have found Yermak’s business ties with Russian officials.
Yermak is also well-known to the American public: He was the closest link between Zelensky and Rudy Giuliani, U.S. President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, whose quest to dig up dirt on former U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden led to Trump’s impeachment trial.
Yermak’s accession to the top post in Zelensky’s administration represents a major shakeup in Ukraine’s executive branch. The former top aide succeeded Andriy Bohdan, the former lawyer of oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky who was his longstanding rival inside the administration.
Bohdan also had a strong foundation in Zelensky’s presidency: He claimed to be the reason the comedic actor decided to run for president.
“A cabinet reshuffle has been in the offing for some time — it will be interesting whether Zelensky uses this as an opportunity to beef up the cabinet,” writes Timothy Ash, a Ukraine analyst and emerging markets sovereign strategist for Bluebay Asset Management Company.
The rise of Yermak
Yermak and Zelensky go back a long way. Yermak worked with Zelensky’s Kvartal 95 studio as a copyright lawyer. He later founded and ran Garnet Media Group, which produced Ukrainian films and TV shows.
At the same time, Yermak served as an aide to wrestler and lawmaker Elbrus Tedeyev between 2006 and 2014. Tedeyev won an Olympic gold medal in 2004 and later became a lawmaker for the now disbanded pro-Russian Party of Regions, led by ousted President Viktor Yanukovych.
Both Yanukovych and Tedeyev driven ousted from politics after the Euromaidan Revolution, which began as a peaceful protest against Yanukovych’s refusal to sign an association agreement with the European Union and ended with over 100 protesters killed by pro-government forces.
A few years later, Zelensky starred in “Servant of the People,” a TV series in which he played a president who defeats corruption and makes Ukraine a successful country. The show was a success, becoming the foundation for Zelensky’s 2019 bid to become a real president.
Zelensky was sworn in as president on May 20 after a landslide victory over incumbent Petro Poroshenko. A day later, Yermak was appointed Zelensky’s aide.
Yermak quickly began accumulating vast powers inside the president’s office.
The impeachment man
That also meant that, soon, Yermak would be pulled into an international political saga that would end with Trump facing impeachment.
Text messages of former U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations Kurt Volker, presented to the U.S. Congress on Oct. 4, show Yermak involved in backchannel meetings with U.S. officials.
On May 20, Volker and Yermak met during Zelensky’s inauguration. After that, the text messages indicate that Yermak was the man who spoke with Volker and Giuliani on behalf of Zelensky.
Volker introduced Giuliani to Yermak on July 19, six days before the now infamous phone call between Trump and Zelensky in which the U.S. president asked his Ukrainian counterpart to investigate Biden’s dealings in Ukraine.
Shortly before the call, the White House froze $391.5 million of U.S. military aide, leading a U.S. official to file a whistleblower complaint against Trump. That would, in turn, provoke the U.S. House of Representatives, which is controlled by the Democratic Party, to open an impeachment probe into Trump on Sept. 25.
According to Volker’s messages, Yermak told the American officials that Zelensky would give in to their request and publicly pledge to investigate Burisma, a private natural gas company that employed Biden’s son Hunter. He also said there would be an investigation into Trump’s allegations that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election against him, a conspiracy theory that has been widely debunked.
During a meeting with Giuliani in Madrid, Yermak assured the lawyer of his willingness to help Trump’s re-election campaign. However, Zelensky never made the public statement pledging to open the investigations.
Meanwhile, Yermak was also Zelensky’s point man on Russia. According to an investigation by Schemes, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s investigative journalism project, the top aide-turned-chief of staff has vast business interests there.
On Sept. 7, Moscow handed over 35 Ukrainian nationals imprisoned in Russia on politically motivated charges. Among them was filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, whose release the European Commission had demanded.
In a Sept. 12 interview with the Ukrainska Pravda news outlet, Yermak said that he worked closely with then-Russian Deputy Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak to make the exchange possible. It was the first exchange between the two countries since 2017.
Ukraine received an additional 76 Ukrainian nationals during a Dec. 29 prisoner exchange with Russian-led militants in eastern Ukraine. This prisoner swap was once again overseen by Yermak and Kozak.
A month after the first prisoner exchange, Schemes dug up company records allegedly connecting Yermak to businesses in Moscow and to Russian officials close to President Vladimir Putin.
Yermak is the beneficiary of a Ukrainian media company called the European Partnership Media Group along with Russian citizen Rahamim Emanuilov, a political commentator and head of multiple foundations in Russia. Yermak and Emanuilov are also co-beneficiaries of two other Ukrainian companies, Interpromfinance and MEP.
According to Schemes’ review of Russian company databases, Emanuilov is the beneficiary of Russian company Interpromtorg, which is a stakeholder of Russia’s Interprombank. Other stakeholders in this bank include people from the upper echelons of Russia’s government.
One of Interprombank’s key stakeholders is Valeriy Ponomarev, a member of the Russian Senate from the Kamchatka region. According to Russian activist Alexei Navalny, his daughter is the nominal owner of a Spanish mansion that media reported was de facto owned by Putin.
One of Interprombank’s board members is Ivan Sadchikov, the son-in-law of the deputy chief of staff of the Russian government, Sergei Prikhodko. Another two board members, Ilham Ragimov and Nikolai Egorov, were once Putin’s classmates, Schemes reported.
Schemes quoted Yermak’s press service as saying that Emanuilov was an old friend of his father’s whom he met during the Soviet war in Afghanistan. Yermak said that, in 1999, he helped Emanuilov register a company in Ukraine because Emanuilov wanted to engage in consulting work. Yermak was quoted as saying that the company did not conduct any business and claimed that the last time he spoke with Emanuilov was 10 years ago, when he wished him a happy birthday over the phone.
The fight for Zelensky
Yermak served as Zelensky’s point man for international relations, while Bohdan oversaw domestic policy. The two have been embroiled in a power struggle for months, forming two separate poles of influence around the president, according to multiple reports from Ukrainian media. The two never publicly admitted their conflict.
When Bohdan disappeared from the public eye in mid-December, Yermak took his usual place near Zelensky at the president’s public appearances.
Yermak accompanied Zelensky during both prisoner exchanges and was photographed next to the president. Yermak also attended the Normandy Format peace negotiations in Paris as the president’s representative alongside Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko in early September.
Yermak stood right beside Zelensky during his Christmas trip to Oman and, a few weeks later, in Kyiv Boryspil International Airport as the bodies of 11 Ukrainians killed when Iran downed Ukraine International Airlines flight PS752 were transported back home.
Additionally, Yermak was gaining influence in domestic politics, the realm formerly monopolized by Bohdan.
In late July, Bohdan began publically pressuring former heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko to resign from leading the Kyiv City State Administration, a post he was granted back in 2014 by Poroshenko.
On Sept. 4, the Cabinet of Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk approved the firing of Klitschko as head of Kyiv’s administration. But Zelensky never signed Klitschko’s dismissal.
According to the Washington Post, Klitschko was able to make a case for himself to Giuliani, his longtime friend and contact, during a personal meeting days before the Trump lawyer met with Yermak in Madrid. During that meeting, Giuliani indirectly asked Yermak to keep Klitschko, which Yermak eventually was able to do.
Yermak allied with Klitschko, yet further damaged his already tense relations with Bohdan. That suggested that only one of the two men could remain close to Zelensky.
From the start of his presidency, Zelensky made achieving peace his main priority. And according to the president, Yermak is the one who will be in charge of delivering on that promise.
Yermak’s counterpart Kozak was recently appointed third deputy head of Putin’s administration – a post created specifically for him. According to Putin’s press secretary, Kozak will coordinate Russia’s relations with Ukraine. That may point to coming efforts to reboot the relationship between Kyiv and Moscow.
And Yermak’s promotion may not be the last new appointment or personnel change in the Zelensky administration, according to analyst Ash.
Bohdan was the one who first introduced Zelensky to current Prime Minister Honcharuk, then the head of the EU-sponsored Better Regulation Delivery Office think tank.
Honcharuk, in turn, would bring a number of his former employees into the Cabinet. Among them were Oleksiy Orzhel, who became energy minister; Denis Maluska, who became justice minister; and Olena Babak, who led the ministry in charge of regional policy. She left that job in early February.
Now, Honcharuk’s team has lost a reliable presidential chief of staff.
“Honcharuk will either have to step up or step aside to assume a more dominant, proactive role,” Ash wrote.
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