Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Friday that his country’s security services had uncovered a Russian-backed coup plot that was to be launched next week, though he provided no evidence to support his claim.
The alleged conspiracy comes at a time of extreme tensions between Moscow and Kyiv, with Russia having massed an invasion-sized force around its contested borders with Ukraine. The Kremlin, which says its troop movements are routine, denied involvement in a plan to unseat Mr. Zelensky.
Mr. Zelensky said Ukrainian intelligence was in possession of “certain audio recordings” in which “representatives of Ukraine” discussed a coup plan with “representatives of Russia,” with the plot set to unfold starting on Dec. 1 or Dec. 2. He said Ukraine’s richest man, billionaire mining and steel magnate Rinat Akhmetov, was mentioned in the recordings as potentially supporting the coup.
Speaking at a hastily arranged news conference with hand-picked Ukrainian and international media, Mr. Zelensky warned Mr. Akhmetov not to allow himself to be dragged “into a war against Ukraine.”
“One cannot fight against your people – against the President who was elected by the people of Ukraine,” Mr. Zelensky said. Mr. Akhmetov was a key supporter of former president Viktor Yanukovych, a Moscow-backed politician who was ousted by a pro-Western revolution in 2014.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia was not involved in any coup plot. “Russia never does such things,” he said.
Taras Berezovets, a Kyiv-based political analyst, said there was no public evidence to support Mr. Zelensky’s allegations. He said the President appeared to be using the tensions with Russia to attack Mr. Akhmetov, whose television channels have recently been harshly critical of Mr. Zelensky. “It’s absolutely unreal,” Mr. Berezovets said of the coup claims.
Mr. Berezovets said that the real threat Ukraine was facing was the growing possibility of wider Russian military action against the country. A situation map published last week by the Ukrainian defence intelligence service shows some 94,000 Russian troops – backed by 1,200 tanks, 330 warplanes and a growing naval flotilla – stationed within a short drive of the borders between the two countries.
Many of those forces are based in Crimea, which Russia seized and annexed following the 2014 revolution in Kyiv, while others are stationed near the Donbas region of southeastern Ukraine, where a Russian-backed militia has fought the Ukrainian army for the past seven years. More than 13,000 people have died in that conflict, which has left two key industrial cities under the control of the Moscow-backed “separatists.”
Large-scale fighting has largely been paused since 2015, following the signing of a peace deal known as the Minsk Accords. The deal was agreed to by Mr. Zelensky’s predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, at a time Ukraine faced the possibility of losing even more territory.
Many in Ukraine loathe the Minsk agreement as capitulation to Russia. The Kremlin says Kyiv has prolonged the war by not implementing the deal, which calls for the Donbas region to be given special constitutional status that would allow the pro-Russian groups to block any future Ukrainian move to join NATO.
Mr. Zelensky said Friday that Ukraine was ready to face any new Russian military action. “There is a threat today that there will be war tomorrow,” he told the news conference. “We are entirely prepared for an escalation.”
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg warned Russia on Friday that there would be unspecified “consequences” if Russian President Vladimir Putin did order a wider invasion of Ukraine.
“This military buildup is unprovoked and unexplained. It raises tensions and it risks miscalculations,” Mr. Stoltenberg said at the start of a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels. He said that while Russia’s intentions remain unclear, “this is a military buildup by a country that has invaded Ukraine before.”
Ukraine is not a member of NATO, but Mr. Zelensky’s government has been looking for a show of support from the 30-member alliance. The Globe and Mail reported this week that Canada was considering bolstering its 200-soldier training mission in western Ukraine, perhaps with additional troops or the deployment of a warship to the Black Sea, bordered by both Ukraine and Russia.
However, no decision about an expanded deployment has been taken, amid concerns that any increased NATO presence in Ukraine would provoke, rather than deter, Mr. Putin. CNN reported this week that U.S. President Joe Biden was also weighing sending American military advisers – and additional weapons such as anti-tank missiles – to Ukraine.
Mr. Zelensky told the news conference in Kyiv that he had received assurances from the U.S., Canada, Britain, Turkey and the European Union “that they are on our side in any case and will support us if something starts. What that will mean in practice, I don’t know.”
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