Inside Andriy Yermak's Quest for Peace in Ukraine

Volodymyr Zelensky’s adviser Andriy Yermak at the Presidential compound in Kyiv in 2022. Credit - Photograph by Maxim Dondyuk for TIME

The fleet of helicopters began to arrive at the Swiss resort around noon on June 15, shuttling world leaders toward the top of a mountain range speckled with grazing cows and wildflowers. The event had been sold to them as a global peace summit, the start of a process that would end the Russian war against Ukraine. But Russia and its allies, notably China, would not be represented. Instead, the Ukrainians would run the show, with President Volodymyr Zelensky in the starring role and his chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, the impresario.

Zelensky and Yermak, old friends from their early careers in the entertainment business, have been inseparable since Russia launched its invasion in early 2022. For much of that year, they lived together in a bunker beneath the presidential compound in Kyiv, slept down the hall from each other, shared meals in the bunker’s cafeteria, and lifted weights in its makeshift gym. They appeared side by side during trips to the front and meetings with foreign allies. That fall, when Zelensky launched a peace process to end the war, he put his chief of staff in charge of it.

Ever since, Yermak has tried to build the groundwork for a peace on Ukraine’s terms, racing to outwit Russia on the diplomatic front even as his country’s armed forces lost ground in the war. With his willful and often overbearing nature, he has succeeded in critical ways while failing in others. Ukraine, through his efforts, has managed to set the stage for talks, gathered a large group of allies around it, and avoided getting dragged into a peace process that Russia controls.

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The summit that took place in mid-June at the Bürgenstock, an Alpine resort where the likes of Sophia Loren and Audrey Hepburn once spent their holidays, was the first real test of this strategy. More than 80 countries agreed to attend, representing every region of the world, but with a distinct preponderance of Western democracies. As they arrived in their helicopters, some noticed that the landing zone stood next to a rundown barn, its fence barely obscuring a large pile of manure. “It’s pretty symbolic,” remarked one of the American guests. “There’s a lot of sh-t to shovel here.”

Yermak has wielded the biggest shovel. He wrangled, shamed, and pressured foreign nations to make the trip to the Alps, all while rejecting the idea that Russia, as the war’s aggressor, should take part. What transpired from his efforts seemed bizarre on its face: a peace process with no mediators, no cease-fires, no actual talks between the warring sides. The U.N. kept a wary distance. Rwanda somehow found itself at the negotiating table. So did the tiny island nation of Cabo Verde. In Yermak’s telling, this was all part of the plan. “We want all the countries of the world to walk this path with us,” he told me while preparing for the summit last fall. “The whole world! Then it would really be hard for the Russians to claim the process isn’t fair. Then we can say, Excuse me, all the countries of the world already agreed that it’s fair.”

Zelensky, Yermak, and U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris at the Bürgenstock on June 15.<span class="copyright">Urs Flueeler—Pool/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Zelensky, Yermak, and U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris at the Bürgenstock on June 15.Urs Flueeler—Pool/AFP/Getty Images

Well, not all of them. Some of the world’s most powerful nations, such as Brazil, India, Saudi Arabia, and South Africa, sent envoys to the summit but refused to sign its final declaration. Other participants complained that the event felt less like a negotiation than an echo chamber for Ukraine’s existing allies. Russia dismissed the whole thing as a farce. The day before it started, Vladimir Putin issued his own demands for peace, a string of ultimatums that would have amounted to Ukraine’s capitulation in the war and the loss of one-fifth of its territory.

Ukraine rejected the offer out of hand, but Russia’s move underscored just how far this war remains from any lasting conclusion. All along the front, the killing continues on a barbaric, industrial scale, as each side seeks to exhaust the other’s willingness to sacrifice its stocks of men and money. So far, the closest thing we have to a peace process in Ukraine appears to be the one that opened at the Bürgenstock, and its success will depend on President Zelensky and his indefatigable fixer, Andriy Yermak.

Though the Ukrainians may wish to forget it these days, their first attempt to sue for peace began as soon as the invasion started. At the time, Zelensky had two core priorities: appealing to the world to help Ukraine defend itself, and urging Putin to call a truce. “We need to talk about the end of this invasion,” he said the day after it began. “We need to talk about a cease-fire.” The following week, the first round of peace talks commenced in a secluded estate in southern Belarus.

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The contrast between the two sides of the table could hardly have been starker. The Russians showed up in business suits and ties. The head of the Ukrainian delegation, Davyd Arakhamia, wore a black baseball cap, cocked slightly to the side. “Our thing was antidiplomacy, starting with the dress code,” Arakhamia, a senior lawmaker in Zelensky’s political party, told me at the time. “They would start with the legalese, and I’d be like, ‘I don’t need this bullsh-t, break it down in normal terms.’”

Within six weeks, the negotiators reached the outlines of a deal. In exchange for reliable “security guarantees” from Russia and other countries, Ukraine would agree to abandon plans to join the NATO alliance and accept the status of “permanent neutrality.” The offer gave Putin a chance to claim at least a partial victory. His main excuse for launching the invasion had been to stop Ukraine from joining NATO, and Zelensky offered to grant him that wish. He was also ready to give up territory in exchange for peace.

The Kremlin seemed willing to consider those terms. But, by the end of April 2022, the peace process broke down for several reasons. Ukraine’s negotiators were horrified by the mass atrocities Russian forces had committed, especially in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha, and they called on Zelensky to pull out of the talks. The position of the U.S. and Europe did little to keep them going. Ukraine’s Western allies refused to make any firm promise to stop Russia from invading again in the future. “They actually advised us not to go into ephemeral security guarantees,” Arakhamia later said. Without such guarantees from the West, the Ukrainians would be left to rely on the good faith of the Russians.

The other reason for the failure of those talks had to do with the state of the fighting. Ukraine’s armed forces achieved some astonishing victories in the first year of the invasion. They defeated Russia in the Battle of Kyiv that spring, forcing the invaders to withdraw from roughly half the land they had occupied. In the fall, the Russians faced a fresh set of defeats in the northeastern region of Kharkiv and the southern city of Kherson.

A Ukrainian soldier awaits an order to open fire on Russian positions near Kharkiv on May 19.<span class="copyright">Evgeniy Maloletka—AP</span>
A Ukrainian soldier awaits an order to open fire on Russian positions near Kharkiv on May 19.Evgeniy Maloletka—AP

As Ukraine gained ground, its allies urged Zelensky to resume the peace talks from a position of strength. “When there’s an opportunity to negotiate, when peace can be achieved, seize it,” U.S. General Mark Milley, then the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said after the Russians withdrew from Kherson in November 2022. “Seize the moment!”

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But the Ukrainians rejected his advice. Milley’s counterpart in Kyiv declared that peace talks could begin only after all Ukraine’s territory had been liberated. Zelensky felt the same way: Why stop when he had the momentum? The string of victories in the first year of the invasion had convinced him the war would continue “along the same trajectory,” the President told me that fall. Still, he could not ignore the pressure coming from his allies, who urged him to consider ways to reach a settlement with Putin. As a compromise, Zelensky proposed an ambitious plan he called the Peace Formula.

It consisted of 10 goals, ranging from the reasonable to the all but unattainable. Point four called for the release of all Ukrainian soldiers and civilians, including children, who had been abducted by Russian forces. Point seven called for all Russian war criminals, including Putin and his top generals, to be brought to justice. Perhaps most important, the formula demanded that Russia withdraw from every inch of Ukrainian land, including that which it had occupied since 2014. “I am convinced,” Zelensky said in announcing the plan in late November 2022, “now is the time when the Russian destructive war must and can be stopped.”

A few days after that announcement, I went to see Yermak in his office on the second floor of the presidential compound, just down the hall from the Situation Room. Zelensky had placed him in charge of implementing the Peace Formula, a Herculean task that might have made Yermak concerned about his chances of success. But he seemed relaxed and confident. The day before, Yermak had celebrated his 51st birthday, and a bundle of balloons hovered in his office, the biggest one in the shape of a missile.

On a table near his desk, he showed me a ceramic skull he had received as a gift. It was painted with images of the Kremlin in flames. “That’s the goal,” he said with a smile. In other ways, too, he tried to project the image of a war fighter, not a negotiator, even as he became the architect of the negotiating process. The task was not foreign to him. Before the invasion, he held numerous rounds of talks with the Russians in the hope of forestalling the war.

Yermak in his office in November 2022, with a ceramic skull decorated with a burning Kremlin.<span class="copyright">Maxim Dondyuk for TIME</span>
Yermak in his office in November 2022, with a ceramic skull decorated with a burning Kremlin.Maxim Dondyuk for TIME

Once the invasion started, Yermak negotiated with the Russians to secure prisoner exchanges, which brought thousands of soldiers and civilians home from Russian captivity. “These swaps were always on the edge,” he told me. “Always hanging by a thread.” The final sign-off on the Russian side would sometimes go all the way up to Putin, who could decide to cancel an exchange that had been months in the making. The biggest one, arranged in the fall of 2022, secured the release of 215 Ukrainian prisoners, including senior military officers, in exchange for 55 captives held in Ukraine. By all accounts, the swap was a coup for Yermak, who went to meet the Ukrainian prisoners upon their release. It demonstrated that he could outmaneuver the Russians at the negotiating table.

A childless bachelor, Yermak was born and grew up in Kyiv. His father Boris worked as a Soviet diplomat in Kabul during the 1980s, at a time when the Soviet Union was bungling through a hopeless war in Afghanistan. After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Yermak worked as a lawyer in newly independent Ukraine. He avoided criminal law, he says, because of the rampant corruption in Kyiv’s legal system. Instead he focused on intellectual-property rights and entertainment law. In 2010, he befriended Zelensky while they were both working for the TV channel that broadcast Zelensky’s comedy shows.

On the side, Yermak also dabbled in the movie business, earning credits as a producer on a couple of moody gangster flicks. Perhaps because of that experience, he often veers into movie references when describing his outlook on the war, sometimes casting himself and the President as the good guys in some Hollywood production. When I asked about his life with Zelensky in the bunker, he brought up one of his favorite films, a classic shoot-’em-up called Heat, starring Robert De Niro. “He does this monologue,” Yermak said of the lead character, who is a bank robber. “It’s about the samurai principle, when your life is devoted to some kind of goal. And our life right now is devoted to victory.”

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Yermak’s work on the Peace Formula took an unorthodox approach to wartime diplomacy. Rather than making any offers to the Russians, Ukraine set out to build a coalition of countries to support its plan for peace. The goal was to give Ukraine more heft and control in the peace process and to deepen Russia’s sense of isolation. Every nation in the world would be welcome as a partner in the process, but not as a neutral observer or a mediator. “We don’t need mediators,” Yermak told me. “Mediators can no longer be allowed to take both sides.”

In order to broaden this alliance, Ukraine packed the Peace Formula with points that other countries could easily support. The first one calls for nuclear safety, the second for stable food supplies to Africa and Asia. The fifth references the founding charter of the U.N., which states that borders cannot be changed by force. “It’s very hard to argue with that,” Yermak explains. If foreign leaders did not want to support the entire plan, he encouraged them to pick and choose which points to endorse à la carte. “Every country can see their own leadership in at least one of the points.”

Starting last summer, Yermak convened a series of meetings with foreign officials willing to support the formula. The first was held in Denmark in June 2023, and it attracted more than a dozen countries, mostly members of the NATO alliance but also Brazil, India, South Africa, and others. After the talks ended, some of the participants went out to a French restaurant in Copenhagen. “There was a lot of optimism,” said one of officials at the dinner. “This was obviously Yermak’s baby, and he thought he could get the whole world behind it.”

At the next gathering, held less than two months later in Saudi Arabia, the number of participating countries more than doubled. Even China sent a representative, signaling that Beijing did not want to be left out. Yermak was ecstatic. “Nobody believed we could pull it off,” he told me afterward. Soon he turned his focus to the plan for hosting a global summit of heads of state in support of Zelensky’s formula.

But, as with every war, the terms of a possible peace were defined by events on the battlefield. Through the summer and early fall of 2023, Ukraine pushed ahead with its most ambitious counteroffensive, aiming to liberate vast stretches of occupied territory using the weapons it had received from the U.S. and Europe. Success would have given Zelensky a chance to negotiate with Putin from a position of strength, potentially dictating the terms of a deal to the Russians.

By the middle of autumn, however, the counteroffensive stalled. Ukrainian forces took horrifying losses as they tried to break through Russia’s stubborn defensive lines. When we met that October, Yermak seemed far less optimistic about the Peace Formula. “We’ll do everything to ensure that this platform survives,” he told me. But he knew the failure of the counteroffensive was not the only obstacle to peace.

Two days earlier, the world’s attention had shifted to the Middle East as Hamas militants invaded Israel, killing some 1,200 people, most of them civilians, and taking around 250 hostages. Yermak sensed what the attack could mean for peace in Ukraine. “I really hope the situation in Israel won’t get in the way,” he told me. “But of course it has an impact.” Arab nations were appalled by the brutality of Israel’s response, which killed thousands of civilians in Gaza. Many countries in the Muslim world refused to back the peace plan in Ukraine as long as Israel pursued its war against Hamas. As a result, Yermak found it much harder to win broad support, and Russia found it easier to undermine his efforts.

By then it was too late for Ukraine to call off the summit in Switzerland. Its Western allies had pledged to attend, and Yermak intensified his efforts to attract guests from other regions. He asked celebrities for help, securing endorsements from Bono and Madonna. Members of Yermak’s team were assigned lists of countries to persuade, mostly in Africa and Latin America. “These were the difficult cases,” one of them told me. “We had to work the phones, come up with arguments.” A few of the targets were swayed by the chance to schmooze with powerful officials at a Swiss resort. Others were too afraid of getting drawn into a fight with Russia and its allies.

By the time the helicopters landed at the Bürgenstock, it seemed clear that Yermak’s dream of a truly global coalition had been dashed. China didn’t show. Saudi Arabia agreed to send an envoy only after Zelensky made a last-minute trip to the kingdom and appealed to its ruler. Yermak was undaunted. At the start of the summit, he declared, “It’s already a success.”

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By his count, more than a hundred countries and international organizations were represented. Their final declaration, all 500 words of it, did not directly call on Russia to stop its invasion. Instead, the participants promised to avoid “the threat or use of force” against any states. Despite the cautious wording, key envoys from the Middle East and other parts of Africa and Asia refused to sign it. South Africa expressed outrage at Israel’s participation in the talks. India and Saudi Arabia both said that without Russia, the process was not credible.

Only on the sidelines did the delegates debate the question on everyone’s minds: What kind of peace will Ukraine end up with? Among the more sober projections came from Czech President Petr Pavel, a retired army general who has been among Ukraine’s most dogged allies. In an interview at the Bürgenstock, he told me Russia would likely remain in control of the lands it had occupied, while the democratic world would continue to condemn the occupation for years to come. “Of course I don’t see a chance that Ukraine would be able to turn the war into their fast success,” Pavel said. The Russians, he added, “have no pressure whatsoever to sit at the table right now.”

When the summit was over, perhaps its weightiest outcome was Ukraine’s pledge to invite the Russians to the next one. They hope to organize it in Saudi Arabia before the end of this year. “No pauses now,” Zelensky said after returning to Kyiv. “We have made the first tangible step toward peace.” By then, Yermak was already preparing for his next big test—meeting the Russians face to face.

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