Russia is exploring multiple ways to destabilise Ukraine and topple the pro-western government, the United States warned yesterday after details emerged of an alleged plot to install a puppet leadership in Kiev.
Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, declined to comment on the specific intelligence behind the plot, revealed by Liz Truss, the foreign secretary, but said that such tactics were “very much part of the Russian toolkit”.
Truss, 46, said on Saturday that MI6 intelligence suggested that Russian security agencies wanted to replace President Zelensky with Yevhen Murayev, a former Ukrainian MP. The unusual statement prompted an angry reaction from Moscow, and mockery from Murayev himself. He implied that Britain’s spy agency had been duped, dismissing the story as “more Mr Bean than James Bond” and posting a mock-up image online of himself as 007.
Blinken, 59, asked by CNN about the alleged plot, said: “I can’t comment on specific pieces of intelligence but we’ve been warning about just this kind of tactic for weeks.” He noted that Washington sanctioned four Ukrainians last week said to be Russian agents.
Blinken met Sergey Lavrov, 71, his Russian counterpart, in Geneva on Friday as part of a diplomatic effort to defuse the crisis. Up to 127,000 troops are estimated to be massing on the border. He said claims of a plot did not make an invasion any more or less likely but “as always, Russia develops lots of options”.
Yesterday the US State Department ordered the families of all American personnel at the US embassy in Ukraine to leave the country. In a travel advisory it added: “US citizens in Ukraine should consider departing now using commercial or other privately available transport options.”
The State Department also warned people not to travel to Ukraine and Russia because of the continuing tension and “potential for harassment against US citizens”.
“There are reports Russia is planning significant military action against Ukraine,” the State Department said.
Ukraine said the claims by Britain should be taken seriously, and vowed to counter the destabilising Russian influence over its political and economic spheres.
Maria Zakharova, Russia’s foreign ministry spokeswoman, dismissed the claims as “disinformation” and accused Britain of seeking to increase tensions. “We call on the Foreign Office to stop provocative activities, stop spreading nonsense,” she said.
Truss suggested that Russian intelligence maintained links with Murayev and four former Ukrainian politicians but did not provide details of how they might topple the government in Kiev.
Murayev, 45, heads Nashi, a tiny pro-Russian party that does not have a single MP. Contacted by The Times, he laughed off the allegations and said he was on holiday with his family “somewhere hot, 7,000km from Kiev”.
He added: “How ridiculous that these allegations could be made without any basis of proof. I have been sanctioned by Russia since 2018. I can’t even enter Russia, as I am technically termed a threat to their national security.”
Murayev said his family’s assets had been seized by Moscow after he fell out with Viktor Medvedchuk, a Kremlin-linked tycoon and the leader of Ukraine’s biggest opposition party. Medvedchuk, 67, whose daughter is President Putin’s godchild, faces treason charges in Ukraine and is under house arrest.
“I suggest Ukrainian politicians are doing something to discredit me, and deluding British intelligence,” Murayev said. “I have been in conflict with Medvedchuk for a long time. It is absurd, with that in mind and the fact that I am sanctioned by Russia, to suggest that I was asked by the Russians to lead an administration. It is a hit on the credibility of British intelligence.”
The SBU, the Ukrainian state security service, was widely criticised in 2018 after it faked the murder of a Russian opposition journalist in Kiev in what it said was a sting operation to thwart a Kremlin-backed assassination plot.
Volodymyr Fesenko, a Ukrainian political analyst, expressed doubt that Russia would choose Murayev to head a pro-Kremlin government in Kiev. He suggested that MI6 may have fallen foul of a deliberate “leak” by Russian intelligence. The Foreign Office named four Ukrainian politicians it said had links to the Russian intelligence agents it said were behind the plot.
Ukraine said that a second shipment of US weapons, weighing 80 tonnes, arrived in Kiev yesterday.
In Germany Admiral Kay-Achim Schönbach, head of the navy, has been forced to resign after saying that Putin deserved “respect” and the Ukraine invasion idea was “nonsense” — comments that led the Ukrainians to summon the German ambassador.
The alleged plotters
Yevhen Murayev, 45, is the head of a small pro-Moscow party called Nashi, which translates as “Ours.” He is a former MP and ally of President Yanukovych, who fled to Russia in 2014. Murayev registered as a presidential candidate in 2019 but withdrew before the vote. He also controls a television station called Nash, which has been accused of airing pro-Russian propaganda. However, Murayev himself was sanctioned by Russia in 2018.
Mykola Azarov, 74, was prime minister of Ukraine from 2010 to 2014, but moved to Russia after Yanukovych was deposed. In 2015 he announced that he was heading a government in exile. An Interpol red notice issued in 2015 at the request of the Ukrainian authorities accused him of embezzlement but was cancelled in 2017 after it was challenged by Azarov. However, he was sanctioned separately by Ukraine last year with assets and property frozen. Azarov called the move “political persecution.”
Vladimir Sivkovich, 61, was deputy head of Ukraine’s security council from 2010 to 2014 and briefly deputy prime minister in 2010. He was sanctioned last week by the US, which has accused him of being involved in a disinformation campaign that targeted the 2020 American presidential elections. He is believed to have moved to Russia after the 2014 revolution.
Serhiy Arbuzov, 45, was Ukraine’s deputy prime minister from 2012 to 2014 under Yanukovych. The former head of the national bank of Ukraine, he briefly served as prime minister in 2014 before fleeing to Russia. He was accused of fraud by Ukraine in 2015 but Moscow refused to extradite him. He was sanctioned by the EU over the embezzlement of Ukrainian state funds in 2014. The sanctions were lifted in 2019 after a successful legal challenge.
Andriy Kluyev, 57, is a former chief of staff to Yanukovych and served as deputy prime minister between 2010 and 2012. He is thought to live in Russia. EU sanctions that were imposed on him in 2017 over abuse of office and fraud allegations were scrapped three years ago.