Britain says Moscow plans to install pro-Russian leader in Ukraine

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KYIV – The British government said on Saturday that the Kremlin is drawing up plans to install a pro-Russian leader in Ukraine – and has already chosen a potential candidate – as President Vladimir V. Putin considers whether to order forces Russians massed on the Ukrainian border to attack.

The highly unusual public statement from the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, released late at night in London, comes at a time of high-stakes diplomacy between the Kremlin and the West. Russia has deployed more than 100,000 Russian troops on Ukraine’s borders who US officials say could attack at any time.

“The information released today sheds light on the extent of Russian activity aimed at overthrowing Ukraine and provides insight into Kremlin thinking,” British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said in a statement. “Russia must defuse, end its campaigns of aggression and disinformation and continue on the path of diplomacy.”

The British announcement was the second time in just over a week that a Western power has publicly accused Russia of meddling in Ukraine’s internal affairs. The United States had previously accused the Kremlin of sending saboteurs into eastern Ukraine to create a provocation that could serve as a pretext for an invasion.

Saturday’s statement provided few details on how Russia might go about imposing a new government on Ukraine, and did not say whether such plans depended on an invasion by Russian troops. British officials familiar with the situation, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the intention was both to prevent the activation of such plans and to warn Mr Putin that this plot had come to light.

In Washington, officials said they believed British intelligence was correct. Two officials said he had been picked up by British intelligence. Within the informal intelligence alliance known as the “Five Eyes”, Britain has primary responsibility for intercepting Russian communications, which is why it played a major role in exposing the Russian interference in the 2016 elections.

Emily J. Horne, spokeswoman for the United States National Security Council, said in a statement that “this kind of conspiracy is deeply concerning. The Ukrainian people have the sovereign right to determine their own future, and we stand with our democratically elected partners in Ukraine.

But the Russian Foreign Ministry denied the British accusation.

“The spread of disinformation by the British Foreign Office is further evidence that NATO countries, led by the Anglo-Saxons, are escalating tensions around Ukraine,” he said in a statement. a statement. “We are calling on the UK Foreign Office to cease its pre-professional activities.”

Ukraine is in a state of great anxiety. In recent weeks, there have been several reports of plots and schemes to destabilize the government and tip the country into war. In addition to warnings about Russian warmongering from the United States and Britain, Ukraine’s military intelligence agency recently said that Russia has sent hundreds of mercenaries to two rebel regions in eastern Ukraine. , and last November President Volodymyr Zelensky said Ukrainian intelligence had uncovered a Russian-backed coup plot involving a prominent Ukrainian oligarch.

At a security conference in Kyiv on Saturday, attendees, mostly high-ranking members of Ukraine’s political opposition, spoke gloomily about the fifth columnists and collaborators of the enemy.

“We are not just talking about large-scale aggression by Russia,” said Pavlo Klimkin, a former foreign minister. “We are talking about the wish of Russian officials, including Putin, to destroy Ukraine as such.”

The British statement provided no evidence to support its claim that Russia was plotting to overthrow the Ukrainian government. The statement also named four other Ukrainians, accusing them of maintaining ties to Russian intelligence, including Russian intelligence officers involved in planning an attack on Ukraine.

Of the five named Ukrainians, four fled Ukraine for Russia in 2014 following a popular uprising that toppled the Russian-backed government in Kiev and sparked the separatist war in eastern Ukraine that continues today.

According to the British assessment, Russian planners were considering installing a former member of Ukrainian parliament named Yevgeniy Murayev as the head of a pro-Kremlin puppet government in Kyiv. Formerly a member of the Russia-backed Regions Party, Murayev now heads a political party called Nashi, which is part of a constellation of opposition parties opposed to Ukraine’s pro-Western parties. Last September, a huge banner with his picture was hung on the facade of the Federation of Trade Unions building in Kiev’s Independence Square with the slogan “This is our land”.

In a recent Facebook post, he accused the current government in Kyiv of selling out to the United States, which he says is stoking war hysteria to reap the financial benefits of arms sales.

“The falcons are eagerly awaiting a feast,” he wrote.

It is not clear from the British statement whether Russia informed Murayev that he was seen as a possible future leader of Ukraine. But after a reporter from a British newspaper informed him of the revelations, he posted a photo of him to Facebook posing as James Bond with the comment “Details tomorrow”.

Russian spies maintain extensive operative networks in Ukraine, and contacts between Ukrainian officials and intelligence operatives are not uncommon, according to Ukrainian and Western security officials.

The other four Ukrainians named in the statement have previously held senior positions in the Ukrainian government and worked close to former President Donald J. Trump’s campaign manager Paul Manafort when he worked as a political adviser to the government. former Ukrainian president backed by Russia. Viktor F. Yanukovych. After Mr Yanukovych’s government fell in 2014, they fled to Russia.

One of the nominees, Vladimir Sivkovich, was among four Ukrainians targeted last week with sanctions by the United States Treasury Department for their links to Russian efforts to destabilize Ukraine.

If the British assessment is correct, it would not be the first time the Kremlin has tried to install a pro-Russian leader or intervene in the Ukrainian government. In 2004, Russian efforts to fraudulently influence a presidential election sparked what became known as the Orange Revolution, which forced a new election that led to the defeat of Mr Yanukovych, who was the Kremlin’s preferred candidate. .

In 2013, when the Kremlin pressured Yanukovych, who was eventually elected president, to back out of a trade pact with the European Union, Ukrainians once again flocked to the streets. Mr Yanukovych was eventually ousted from power, prompting Mr Putin to order the annexation of the Crimean peninsula and start a separatist war in eastern Ukraine.

Russian officials have repeatedly denied any intention to launch an attack on Ukraine, calling the accusations “hysteria” and claiming without providing evidence that it is the Kyiv government that is seeking to escalate tensions. Even so, the build-up of Russian troops on the border continued. At least 127,000 troops now surround Ukraine to the north, east and west, according to Ukraine’s military intelligence service, with additional troops from Russia’s Eastern Military District now pouring into neighboring Belarus.

The standoff evokes an old-fashioned Cold War confrontation between Moscow and the West, with the two sides trading accusations of warmongering and jockeying for geopolitical advantage. Although the tone of confrontation was muted when Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken met his Russian counterpart for the latest round of talks in Geneva on Friday, there is no end in sight yet.

Britain’s unusual disclosure comes at a time when it is trying to assert itself in the crisis on the military and diplomatic fronts. He delivered shipments of anti-tank weapons to the Ukrainian army, sent his senior ministers to NATO countries threatened by Russia, and began to engage directly with Russia.

British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace has accepted an invitation from his Russian counterpart, Sergei K. Shoigu, to meet in Moscow, while Foreign Secretary Liz Truss may meet Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey V. Lavrov.

The disclosure also comes amid a swirling political scandal over Downing Street garden parties in 2020 that breached lockdown restrictions, which have escalated to such an extent that they threaten Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s grip on power.

Critics have suggested Mr Johnson may be trying to exploit tensions with Russia – and Britain’s more assertive diplomatic and military role – as a way to distract from his political woes.

Kenneth P. Vogel contributed reporting from Washington and Maria Varenikova reported from Kyiv.

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