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

KYIV – The British government said on Saturday that the Kremlin was developing plans to install a pro-Russian leader in Ukraine – and had already chosen a potential candidate – while President Vladimir V. Putin is considering whether to order the Russian forces, gathered at Ukraine’s border to attack. .

The most unusual public communiqué from the United Kingdom’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, released late at night in London, comes in a moment of high-tension diplomacy between the Kremlin and the West. Russia has deployed more than 100,000 Russian troops at Ukraine’s borders, which US officials say could attack at any time.

“The information released today sheds light on the scale of Russian activity designed to undermine Ukraine, and is an insight into the Kremlin’s thinking,” said British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss in a statement. “Russia must de-escalate, end its aggression and disinformation campaigns and pursue the path of diplomacy.”

The communiqué provided few details on how Russia could go about imposing a new government on Ukraine, and did not say whether such plans were conditional on an invasion of Russian troops. British officials, familiar with the situation, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the intention was both to avert the activation of such plans as well as to make Mr Putin aware that this plot had been revealed.

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

In a statement, Emily J. Horne, spokeswoman for the US National Security Council, said, “This kind of conspiracy is deeply worrying. The Ukrainian people have a sovereign right to decide their own future, and we stand with our democratically elected partners in Ukraine. “

Ukraine is in a state of high anxiety. In recent weeks, several reports have surfaced of plans and plans aimed at destabilizing the government and tipping the country into war.

This month, the United States accused the Kremlin of sending saboteurs into eastern Ukraine to create a provocation that could serve as a pretext for invasion. Ukraine’s military intelligence said Russia had recently sent hundreds of mercenaries into two rebel regions in eastern Ukraine, and last November President Volodymyr Zelensky said Ukrainian intelligence had uncovered a Russian-backed coup involving a prominent Ukrainian oligarch. .

At a security conference in Kiev on Saturday, participants, most of them senior members of Ukraine’s political opposition, spoke darkly about fifth columnists and hostile collaborators.

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

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

Of the five named Ukrainians, four fled Ukraine to Russia in 2014 after a popular uprising that ousted the Russian-backed government in Kiev and touched on the separatist war in eastern Ukraine that continues today.

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

In a recent Facebook post, he accused the current government in Kiev of selling out to the United States, which he said was whipping up war hysteria to reap economic gains from the sale of weapons.

“The Hawks are looking forward to a party,” he wrote.

It is not clear from the British statement whether Russia had informed Mr Murayev that he was considered a possible future leader of Ukraine. But after a journalist from a British newspaper tipped him off about the revelations, he posted a picture of himself on Facebook posing as James Bond with the comment “Details tomorrow.”

Russian spies maintain extensive networks of agents in Ukraine, and contacts between Ukrainian officials and intelligence officers are not uncommon, according to Ukrainian and Western security officials

All four other Ukrainians mentioned in the communiqué once held senior positions in the Ukrainian government and worked near Paul Manafort, former President Donald Trump’s campaign manager, when he worked as a political adviser to Ukraine’s former Russian-backed president. Viktor F. Yanukovych. After Yanukovych’s government fell in 2014, they fled to Russia.

One of the names, Vladimir Sivkovich, was among four Ukrainians who were hit last week by sanctions from the US Treasury Department for their ties to Russia’s efforts to destabilize Ukraine.

If the British assessment is correct, it would not be the first time the Kremlin tried to install a pro-Russian leader or interfere in the Ukrainian government. In 2004, Russia’s efforts to fraudulently influence a presidential election triggered what became known as the Orange Revolution, which forced a re-election that led to the defeat of Yanukovych, the Kremlin’s favorite candidate.

In 2013, when the Kremlin pressured Yanukovych, who was eventually elected president, to withdraw from a trade pact with the EU, Ukrainians again took to the streets. Yanukovych was eventually ousted from power, prompting Mr Putin to order the annexation of the Crimean peninsula and to launch a separatist war in eastern Ukraine.

Russian officials have repeatedly denied any intention to launch an attack on Ukraine, dismissing such allegations as “hysteria” and claiming without providing evidence that the Kiev government is seeking to escalate tensions. Yet the build-up of Russian troops at the border continues. At least 127,000 troops are now encircling Ukraine to the north, east and west, Ukraine’s military intelligence says, and additional troops from Russia’s eastern military district are now pouring into neighboring Belarus.

The standoff smells of an old-fashioned Cold War showdown between Moscow and the West, with both sides exchanging allegations of war and jockeying for geopolitical advantage. Although the confrontational tone was subdued when Foreign Minister Antony J. Blinken met his Russian counterpart at the latest round of talks in Geneva on Friday, there is still no end in sight.

Britain’s unusual revelation comes at a time when it is trying to assert itself in the crisis on military and diplomatic fronts. It has provided shipments of anti-tank weapons to the Ukrainian military, sent its senior ministers to NATO countries under threat from Russia, and begun engaging directly with Russia.

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

The revelation also comes amid a swirling political scandal over Downing Street garden parties in 2020 that violated lockdown restrictions that have grown to such an extent that it threatens Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s grip on power.

Critics have suggested that Mr Johnson could try to exploit tensions with Russia – and Britain’s more assertive diplomatic and military role – as a way of diverting attention from his political problems.

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

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