Britain says it has uncovered a Kremlin plot to overthrow the Ukrainian government and install a pro-Russian regime in Kyiv.
The alleged plot involves several top officials who served under former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, a Moscow-backed politician who was deposed by a pro-Western revolution in 2014. The Kremlin has always referred to the events of 2014 as a Western-backed coup d’état, pointing to diplomatic and small-scale financial support that Western embassies in Kyiv gave to non-governmental organizations involved in the uprising.
Meanwhile, Russia continues to gather an invasion-sized force on three sides of Ukraine. It was unclear from the statement, released Saturday by Britain’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), whether the office believes the Kremlin plans to install the government after invading and occupying Ukraine, or whether a coup attempt is seen as an alternative to large-scale Russian military action.
“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 FCDO statement reads, without naming the source of the information. The statement says Yevhen Murayev, a former pro-Russian MP from Mr. Yanukovych’s disbanded Party of Regions, “is being considered as a potential candidate” by Russian intelligence services to lead the Moscow-backed regime.
“The information being released today shines a light on the extent of Russian activity designed to subvert Ukraine, and is an insight into Kremlin thinking,” British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss says in the statement. “Russia must de-escalate, end its campaigns of aggression and disinformation, and pursue a path of diplomacy. As the UK and our partners have said repeatedly, any Russian military incursion into Ukraine would be a massive strategic mistake with severe costs.”
The statement also names four other Yanukovych-era officials as “maintaining links” with “Russian intelligence officers currently involved in the planning for an attack on Ukraine.” The four are former prime minister Mykola Azarov; former deputy prime minister Serhiy Arbuzov; Mr. Yanukovych’s former chief of staff, Andriy Kluyev; and the former deputy head of Ukraine’s national security council, Vladimir Sivkovich.
Mr. Sivkovich was one of four Ukrainian citizens targeted for new U.S. sanctions announced on Thursday. A statement from the U.S. Treasury – which also named former pro-Russian MPs Taras Kozak, Oleh Voloshyn and Volodymyr Oliynyk – said the four were working with Russia’s FSB security service to prepare “to take over the government of Ukraine and to control Ukraine’s critical infrastructure with an occupying Russian force.”
Though life in Kyiv continued as normal on Saturday – with businesses operating and pedestrians wandering the city’s main Khreshchatyk Street on a snowy afternoon – there is a growing sense in the international community that Russian military moves may be imminent.
CNN and Fox News have reported that the United States is preparing to order an evacuation of its non-essential diplomatic staff in Ukraine as soon as Monday. The Fox News report, which quoted unnamed U.S. officials, said the State Department was also planning to encourage Americans in Ukraine to leave the country on commercial flights “while those are still available.”
Though all Western embassies in Kyiv are making contingency plans, there is no known timetable for evacuating Canadian diplomatic staff from Ukraine. Since Jan. 15, Canada has been warning its citizens against non-essential travel to Ukraine.
Russia has repeatedly dismissed talk of a looming invasion as an invention of Western media. On Saturday, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova lashed out at a Bloomberg News report that quoted an anonymous diplomatic source saying that Chinese President Xi Jinping had asked Russian President Vladimir Putin not to attack Ukraine during the Beijing Winter Olympics, which begin Feb. 4 and run until Feb. 20.
In a posting to her Telegram channel, Ms. Zakharova pointed out that the 2008 Russia-Georgia war had taken place during that year’s Summer Games in Beijing. She claimed Georgia, which at the time had a pro-Western government, started that 12-day conflict, and suggested that Ukraine and its allies in the West might try to provoke a February conflict to spoil this year’s Winter Games in Beijing.
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