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

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KIEV, Ukraine — The British government said on Saturday the Kremlin was developing plans to install a pro-Russian leader in Ukraine — and had already selected a potential candidate — while Russian President Vladimir Putin weighed the prospect on the Ukrainian border to order the accumulated Russian forces to attack.

The highly unusual public communiqué from Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, issued late at night in London, comes at a time of high-level diplomacy between the Kremlin and the West. Russia has deployed more than 100,000 Russian troops on Ukraine’s borders, which American officials say could attack at any moment.

“The information released today sheds light on the scale of Russian activity aimed at undermining Ukraine and gives an insight into the mindset of the Kremlin,” British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said in a statement. “Russia must de-escalate, end its campaigns of aggression and disinformation, and embark on a path of diplomacy.”

The British announcement marked the second time in just over a week that a Western power publicly accused Russia of meddling in Ukraine’s internal affairs, part of a concerted effort to press Putin to de-escalate. On January 14, the United States accused the Kremlin of sending saboteurs into eastern Ukraine to create a provocation that could be used as a pretext for an invasion.

The new allegations from Britain offered few details on how Russia might proceed to impose a new government on Ukraine, and the communiqué 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 such plans from being activated and to alert Putin that the plot had been exposed.

In Washington, officials said they believe British intelligence is right. Two officials said it was collected 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 key role in exposing Russian interference in the 2016 elections.

In a statement, Emily Horne, spokeswoman for the US National Security Council, said: “This type of conspiracy is deeply concerning. The Ukrainian people have the sovereign right to determine their own future and we stand behind our democratically elected partners in Ukraine.”

But the Russian Foreign Ministry rejected the British accusation.

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

Ukraine is in a state of great fear. Several reports have surfaced in recent weeks of plans and schemes aimed at destabilizing the government and plunging the country into war.

In addition to warnings of Russian conspiracies from the United States and Britain, Ukrainian military intelligence recently said Russia had sent hundreds of mercenaries to two rebel regions of eastern Ukraine, and in November Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Ukrainian intelligence had uncovered a Russian-backed coup plot , which involved a prominent Ukrainian oligarch.

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

“We are not just talking about large-scale aggression by 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 was planning to overthrow the Ukrainian government. The communiqué also named four other Ukrainians and accused them of having ties to Russian intelligence, including Russian intelligence officers involved in planning an attack on Ukraine.

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

According to British estimates, Russian planners were considering using a former Ukrainian MP named Yevgeny Murayev to lead a pro-Kremlin puppet government in Kiev. Once a member of the Russia-backed Party of Regions, Murayev is now the leader of a political party called Nashi, which is part of a constellation of opposition parties opposed to Ukraine’s pro-Western parties. In September a huge banner with his photo was hung on the facade of the Trade Union Confederation building on Independence Square in Kiev with the slogan “This is our country”.

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

“The Falcons look forward to a feast,” he wrote.

It is not clear from the British statement whether Russia had informed Murayev that he was being considered as a possible future leader of Ukraine. But after being alerted to the revelations by a journalist from a UK newspaper, he posted a photo of himself posing as James Bond on Facebook with the comment “Details tomorrow”.

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

All four other Ukrainians named in the communiqué once held senior posts in the Ukrainian government and worked close to Paul Manafort, former US President Donald Trump’s campaign manager, when he served as political adviser to former Ukrainian President Viktor, who was appointed by Russia was supported, Yanukovych worked. After the fall of the Yanukovych government in 2014, they fled to Russia.

One of those named, Vladimir Sivkovich, was among four Ukrainians sanctioned by the US Treasury Department last week for their links to Russian efforts to destabilize Ukraine.

If the British assessment is correct, it would not be the first time that the Kremlin has tried to install a pro-Russian leader or to interfere in the Ukrainian government. In 2004, Russian attempts to fraudulently influence a presidential election sparked the so-called Orange Revolution, which forced a snap election that resulted in the defeat of Yanukovych, who was the Kremlin’s preferred candidate.

When the Kremlin pressured Yanukovych, who was eventually elected president, to pull out of a trade deal with the European Union in 2013, Ukrainians again took to the streets. Yanukovych was eventually ousted from power, prompting Putin to order the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and incite a separatist war in eastern Ukraine.

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

The standoff is reminiscent of an old-fashioned Cold War showdown between Moscow and the West, with both sides trading accusations of warmongering and jostling for geopolitical advantages. Although the tone of the confrontation was muted when Foreign Minister Antony Blinken met his Russian counterpart for the latest round of talks in Geneva on Friday, there is no end in sight.

Britain’s unusual disclosure comes as it seeks to assert itself on military and diplomatic fronts in the crisis. It has provided supplies of anti-tank weapons to the Ukrainian military, deployed its senior ministers to NATO countries threatened by Russia, and started working directly with Russia.

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

The unveiling also comes amid a swirling political scandal surrounding Downing Street garden parties in 2020, which flouted lockdown restrictions and has soared to the point of threatening British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s stay in power.

Critics have suggested that Johnson may be trying to exploit tensions with Russia – and Britain’s more assertive diplomatic and military role – to divert attention from his political problems.

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