Why President Zelensky Is Purging His Inner Circle

Zelensky and Yermak find themselves tied to one another and somewhat interdependent: the former on the staffing policy of his head of administration, the latter on the political survival of his patron.

President Volodymyr Zelensky is continuing his large-scale purge of the Ukrainian leadership in an attempt to achieve greater cohesion and efficiency. The Ukrainian president is preparing for a double crisis in which increasing pressure from Russian troops at the front could add to internal destabilization after Zelensky’s presidential term formally expires on May 20.

The downside to this purge is that by removing his old friends from Kvartal 95—the TV production company that the comedian-turned-president once founded—from the corridors of power, Zelensky is surrounding himself with the protégés of his chief of staff, Andriy Yermak. That leaves the president without any sources of alternative opinions, which has never been good for public administration. It also raises questions about how stable the tandem—increasingly skewed in favor of Yermak—will be, and whether the ambitions of the all-powerful administrator will go into overdrive.

When Zelensky explained the dismissal of Ukraine’s popular commander-in-chief, Valery Zaluzhny, by saying it was part of a larger overhaul of the system, his words were widely interpreted as a cover for an unpopular decision that was in fact purely political. However, the general’s firing really did mark the start of purges and reshuffles at the highest levels of power.

Zaluzhny’s departure was followed by that of Oleksiy Danilov, the once influential secretary of the National Security and Defense Council, known for his hawkish views and aggressive rhetoric. Unofficially, it was apparently this latter trait that led to his downfall: the president was unhappy with Danilov’s outspoken response to comments by China’s special representative for Eurasian affairs. Kyiv hopes to convince Beijing to take part in an upcoming peace summit in Switzerland, and so does not wish to quarrel with the Chinese.

Since then, nearly all of Zelensky’s associates from Kvartal 95 who had been appointed to senior positions have been removed. From the very beginning of his presidency, Zelensky was wary of the old elites, and sought to surround himself with loyal supporters. When he came to power, he brought with him many managers from the TV production company he had once founded together with school friends. As a rule, these managers were old friends and partners who enjoyed his personal trust. The heads of Kvartal 95, Ivan Bakanov and Serhiy Shefir, were made head of the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) and first assistant to the president, respectively, while the studio’s executive producer Serhiy Trofimov became the first deputy head of the president’s office.

By the beginning of 2024, there was no trace of all this idyllic picture of close old friends. Bakanov was fired from the SBU back in 2022 for failing to pick up on treason among high-ranking security officials, while Trofimov and Shefir lost their jobs in the recent purge.

The beneficiary of all these firings is the head of the president’s office, Andriy Yermak. All the vacant posts have been filled by his nominees, meaning there is no longer anyone who has been in a key position in the president’s office since before Yermak became chief of staff.

Yermak’s own protégés, meanwhile, are apparently very difficult to fire. His deputy Oleh Tatarov, for example—a security official with a dubious past—is still in his post, despite all the efforts of anti-corruption authorities and investigative journalists.

With no sign of the ongoing purge stopping anytime soon, many are questioning the unprecedented trust that the president appears to have in his chief of staff. After all, Yermak has been accused of being everything from an MI6 handler to a Kremlin agent.

In reality, Yermak came from the legal profession, though he also moves in show business circles. He was previously one of Ukraine’s leading copyright experts, representing the interests of Hollywood majors and working with prominent clients on the Ukrainian market, as well as producing several films and TV series himself. He met Zelensky when they worked together at the Inter TV channel.

His current reputation as a gray cardinal, however, has less to do with Yermak’s personality or biography than with his position. The post of head of the presidential administration doesn’t officially have any constitutional authority in Ukraine, but because it provides direct access to the president, holders of the title are inevitably perceived as shadow chancellors. And since no other president in the history of Ukraine has ever had such a concentration of power as Zelensky has since Russia’s invasion, the omnipotence of his administration has also increased.

Yermak’s rise is partly due to his communication skills. At one time, he managed to establish a good enough working relationship with his Russian colleague Dmitry Kozak for a high-profile prisoner exchange to take place. On the very first day of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Yermak contacted the Russian tycoon Roman Abramovich via a fellow film producer, Alexander Rodnyansky. Abramovich accepted the role of mediator in negotiations between Kyiv and Moscow. Yermak’s show business connections also helped to build a global coalition in support of Ukraine.

Yermak’s influence irritates many in the Ukrainian elite, and he has probably been the subject of more attacks than any other top official. The biggest of them was “Wagnergate,” when high-ranking security officials and journalists accused Yermak of disrupting an operation in 2020 to capture a group of mercenaries from Russia’s infamous Wagner private military company. Following the full-scale invasion, Yermak was also accused by U.S. Republican congresswoman Victoria Spartz of working for Russia and sabotaging the Ukrainian military effort.

Ultimately, none of the mud thrown at Yermak appears to have stuck to him, and the current purge is a signal to all of his enemies that he still has the president’s trust. Now, with pressure growing at the front and the opposition preparing to take advantage of the formal expiration of Zelensky’s presidential term after May 20, the president wants to ensure maximum loyalty in his inner circle.

Yet by surrounding himself with the protégés of his chief of staff, the president is increasingly isolated from alternative points of view, which heightens the risks of a drift toward authoritarianism. On Kyiv’s political sidelines, there are persistent rumors about the imminent formation of a “strong government” in which Yermak will replace the current prime minister, the technocrat Denys Shmyhal, and be given full emergency powers. It is far from clear, however, whether Yermak himself would agree to give up the convenient post of shadow chancellor for that of head of government, which traditionally serves as a lightning rod for criticism of the president.

Nor is it obvious that Zelensky himself, for all his trust in Yermak, is ready to transfer so much power to him. After all, no one is immune to developing political ambitions. In this respect, however, there is already a barrier in place: Yermak is unpopular with the Ukrainian public, and his trust rating continues to fall. In February 2024, 61 percent of people polled by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology said they did not trust him.

As a result, Zelensky and Yermak find themselves tied to one another and somewhat interdependent: the former on the staffing policy of his chief of staff, the latter on the political survival of his patron, Yermak’s loyalty to whom is the source of his own influence. The relationship within this tandem will become the main substance of the new political era that will dawn in Ukraine after the formal expiration of Zelensky’s powers on May 20.

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