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Police guard in front of the parliament building as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy addresses lawmakers during a parliamentary session in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Dec. 1.GLEB GARANICH/Reuters

On a day that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had warned his country could face a Russian-backed coup d’état, thousands instead took to the streets of Kyiv to peacefully demand their President either fire his controversial chief of staff or resign.

Meanwhile, tensions continued to rise along the country’s borders with Russia, where Ukraine says 115,000 Russian troops are now massed. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken added his voice to those warning that Russian President Vladimir Putin could be planning an invasion, while also seeking to destabilize Ukraine from within.

Mr. Putin on Wednesday laid out what appears to be his main demand in the escalating crisis, saying his country would demand “specific agreements” precluding any further expansion of the 30-member NATO alliance near Russia’s borders. Ukraine, which has sought NATO membership since a 2014 revolution in the country, immediately rejected Moscow’s demand for a veto over its future.

It was against the backdrop of the Russian military buildup that Mr. Zelensky claimed last week that a coup was being organized in Ukraine – which he said could be launched on Dec. 1 or 2 – with the possible participation of the country’s richest man, oligarch Rinat Akhmetov.

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Servicemen of the National Guard are seen during a rally of entrepreneurs and representatives of small businesses in front of the parliament building.GLEB GARANICH/Reuters

Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal later said that the alleged plot was “absolutely” backed by the Russian state, and thousands of additional police and soldiers were deployed in central Kyiv ahead of Wednesday’s protest.

Protesters who took to the streets mocked the idea that they were planning to violently seize power – or that they were somehow in cahoots with Moscow. Most appeared to be supporters of former president Petro Poroshenko, while others were disgruntled veterans of the seven-year war against a Russian-backed militia that controls part of the southeastern Donbas region of Ukraine. Some wore the insignia of an ethnocentric far-right militia.

There was a potentially dangerous moment as the crowd of several thousand marched from Kyiv’s main square to the building housing the Office of the President, which was guarded by a line of riot police. The protesters, however, filed past shouting “bandits out!” and other insults without confronting the security forces.

Organizer Bohdana Levytska said the protesters’ key demand was the resignation of Mr. Zelensky’s chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, an unelected official accused of violating the constitution by gathering power to his office. But some also carried signs mocking the 43-year-old Mr. Zelensky – a TV comedian before a stunning 2019 rise to the presidency – as a clown who had invented the coup plot to distract the public at a time when his popularity is sliding amid an economic crisis, the pandemic and the relentless fighting in Donbas, which has claimed more than 13,000 lives since 2014.

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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy gestures as he addresses lawmakers.VALENTYN OGIRENKO/Reuters

“I think Zelensky is a teenager,” said Nelly Stelmakh, a 58-year-old procurement specialist who attended the protest on Kyiv’s central square, known as the Maidan, wearing a red “Canada” tuque. “In Ukraine, we have a war. The President and the other authorities have to be serious people.”

Ihor Zolotov, a 55-year-old who said he had served in the Donbas war as the commander of a mortar unit – and who attended the protest clad in military fatigues – said Mr. Zelensky was “joking” when he made his coup claim. “He’s still doing his comedy show.”

But Mr. Blinken signalled on Wednesday that the U.S. shared Mr. Zelensky’s concerns, saying the U.S. saw signs that Russia – which has assembled an invasion-sized force near Ukraine for the second time this year – was stirring up trouble inside and outside Ukraine.

“We’re deeply concerned by evidence that Russia has made plans for significant aggressive moves against Ukraine. The plans include efforts to destabilize Ukraine from within, as well as large-scale military operations,” Mr. Blinken said following a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in the Latvian capital of Riga.

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Opposition lawmakers protest during a speech by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.VALENTYN OGIRENKO/Reuters

Mr. Blinken, who is due to discuss Ukraine on Thursday at a meeting in Stockholm with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, said the U.S. was prepared to adopt harsh new sanctions should Russia “follow the path of confrontation” against its neighbour.

The dates of the alleged coup plot are heavy with political significance in Ukraine. Dec. 1, 2013, was the day Ukrainian protesters first battled back against the riot police of then-president Viktor Yanukovych, a pro-Russian politician who was ousted in a pro-Western revolution 12 weeks later. Wednesday was also the 30th anniversary of Ukraine’s declaration of independence from the Soviet Union, which was recognized by Canada on Dec. 2, 1991.

Ukraine’s SBU intelligence service opened an investigation this week into the alleged plot that is expected to focus on three retired security officers who were reportedly recorded having a conversation with a suspected Russian agent stationed in the occupied Crimean Peninsula.

There are few signs, however, that the plot ever got past the discussion stage. In Kyiv, many see Mr. Zelensky’s decision to go public about it as both a political ploy – an effort to taint Mr. Akhmetov, who owns TV channels that have been harshly critical of Mr. Zelensky, and other rivals – as well as a sign that the President is struggling to deal with the compounding pressures of a struggling economy, the pandemic and the renewed threat of a Russian invasion.

“Zelensky looked very nervous. Stressed, definitely,” said Sergiy Solodkyy, an expert in security and foreign policy at the New Europe Centre, a think tank in Kyiv. Mr. Solodkyy said Mr. Zelensky had shed the hopeful optimism that swept him to office in 2019, and was now mired deep in the complicated realpolitik of dealing with Ukraine’s powerful oligarchs and a hostile neighbour in Russia.

“It might be a political game,” Mr. Solodkyy said of the coup allegation, “but it might also be a serious threat to Ukrainian state interests originating in Russia. In our part of the world, it is better to overestimate the external threat than to underestimate it.”

The internal Ukrainian political drama is very much shaped by the threat of new Russian military action against the country. The Ukrainian foreign ministry said this week that there are now 115,000 Russian soldiers stationed within a short distance of the borders between the two countries – an increase from an estimated 92,000 just 10 days earlier.

Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Wednesday that Russia’s military buildup was necessary because Ukraine had amassed 125,000 troops near the front line in Donbas. Moscow accuses Ukraine of making preparations to retake the breakaway region by force, something Ukrainian officials have consistently denied.

In an address to Ukraine’s parliament on Wednesday, held under heavy security, Mr. Zelensky called for direct negotiations with Russia to “stop the war.” Russia claims that it is not involved in the Donbas conflict and says Kyiv must negotiate instead with the leaders of the “separatist” militias that control the region.

Iuliia Mendel, a media consultant and former spokeswoman for Mr. Zelensky, said the political tensions in Kyiv were directly connected to the military situation. “Russia always tries to finance things to destabilize the situation. The more instability in the country, the better it is for them,” she said in an interview. Ms. Mendel said she hadn’t personally seen any evidence of the coup plot, but that the country’s security services were taking it seriously.

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