The U.K. said it has exposed a plot by Russia to install a friendly government in Ukraine, supporting an earlier U.S. assessment suggesting that the Kremlin is laying plans to oust its neighbor’s leadership.
The allegations, announced Saturday by the British Foreign Office, come in the midst of warnings that Russia could invade Ukraine with the around 100,000 troops it has gathered near the border.
Neither the U.K. nor the U.S. revealed exactly how it believed Moscow was intending to bring its alleged agents to power. Western and Ukrainian officials say Russia is considering various scenarios, from a military invasion to a destabilization campaign aimed at toppling the government of Ukraine’s pro-Western president, Volodymyr Zelensky.
“We have information that indicates the Russian government is looking to install a pro-Russian leader in Kyiv as it considers whether to invade and occupy Ukraine,” the Foreign Office said in a statement Saturday.
While the Kremlin didn’t respond to a request for comment, it has denied any plans to invade or undermine Ukraine, even as it seeks to subdue the former Soviet republic and halt its integration with the West.
The U.S. and several of its allies have pledged to hammer Russia with economic and other sanctions if it expands an invasion of Ukraine that began in 2014. But the range of interventions available to Russia short of an outright invasion—from cyberattacks to disinformation to provocations—complicates the West’s response. Top Ukrainian officials say they believe that the Kremlin is more likely to seek to destabilize Ukraine and remove its leadership rather than launching a full-scale military invasion.
President Biden acknowledged Wednesday that the U.S. and its allies might struggle to find common ground on how to respond if Russia stages a “minor incursion.” The White House later clarified that any new movement across the border by Russian troops would be met with “a swift, severe and united response.”
The Foreign Office’s statement named an ex-lawmaker as the Russian candidate for prime minister and cited Russian intelligence links with four former senior officials who fled to Russia in 2014 when their boss, then-President Viktor Yanukovych, was ousted during mass street protests.
“Some of these have contact with Russian intelligence officers currently involved in the planning for an attack on Ukraine,” the Foreign Office said.
Former officials from Mr. Yanukovych’s government have long been plotting a return to power in Ukraine, according to a person who has communicated with them. They are firmly under the control of Russian security services, the person said.
The U.K. has taken a significant role in efforts to deter Russia from sending its military into Ukraine., sending thousands of antitank weapons to the country in recent days.
U.K. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said the information released Saturday demonstrated the extent of Kremlin activity designed to subvert Ukraine.
“Russia must de-escalate, end its campaigns of aggression and disinformation, and pursue a path of diplomacy,” she said. “As the U.K. and our partners have said repeatedly, any Russian military incursion into Ukraine would be a massive strategic mistake with severe costs.”
The allegations come two days after the U.S. sanctioned four pro-Russian Ukrainian politicians whom it said were engaged in Kremlin-directed efforts to destabilize Ukraine.
“Russia has directed its intelligence services to recruit current and former Ukrainian government officials to prepare to take over the government of Ukraine and to control Ukraine’s critical infrastructure with an occupying Russian force,” the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control said in a statement Thursday.