Boris Johnson promised to ramp up pressure on Russia as his domestic political troubles worsened as the Foreign Office revealed evidence of a plan to install a pro-Moscow government in Ukraine.
The rare reference to intelligence-gathering went into almost no detail about a conspiracy that could mean a serious escalation in the threat to Ukraine. Politicians were skeptical that the government could be replaced without a full-blown invasion of the capital, Kyiv.
The Foreign Office also had information on former Ukrainian politicians with links to Russian intelligence services, and listed five men. The statement said that some of these have contact with Russian intelligence officers who are currently involved in planning for an attack.
Four of the five men are in exile in Moscow, making their ties to Russia's leadership less of a matter of subterfuge than public record.
The Foreign Office's claims were thrown into further confusion when the man it named as a potential candidate told the Observer he would make an unlikely candidate to head a puppet government for Moscow.
You made my evening a success. The British Foreign Office seems confused, said former Ukrainian MP Yevhen Murayev, laughing. It isn't very logical. Money from my father's firm has also been confiscated. Johnson pushed for a gear change in the Ukraine situation after a period when his government appeared to take a back seat on international diplomacy around this issue, while battling heavy political challenges over lock-down-busting parties, a statement from the Foreign Office was followed by an intervention from No 10 by the Foreign Office.
While Ukraine President Joe Biden and a host of European leaders have made a series of interventions over the past week, the prime minster has largely avoided the recent flurry of diplomacy aimed at averting war. Last week, as high-level talks took place across Europe, the UK's defence and foreign secretaries, Ben Wallace and Liz Truss, were both in Australia.
The prime minister seems to have been absent from top-level Ukraine diplomacy in the week of acute tension in Europe, and the foreign secretary has managed to be in the wrong hemisphere, said Peter Ricketts, former national security adviser and former permanent secretary of the Foreign Office.
In Ukraine, Vasyl Filipchuk, a former spokesman for Ukraine's foreign ministry, described the British allegations of a plot as ridiculous, and he claimed that a rigged election would not bring the pro-Russian actors power, and trying to install them by force would mean a very long and very bloody fight.
He said that this scenario would only work with a fully fledged invasion of Kyiv. The city would be decimated, its land burned and a million people would flee. We have 100,000 people in the capital with arms who will fight. There may be a plan but it is bullshit. The prominent Russian TV journalist Yevgeny Kiselyov, who moved to Ukraine in 2008, said mainstream opposition figures who opposed Ukraine's president Volodymyr Zelenskiy would never talk to Russian spy agencies, however unhappy they were with the current government in Kyiv.
He added that Russian intelligence had a history of telling the Kremlin what it wanted to hear, rather than objective reality.
The Foreign Office statement appeared plausible but did not contain any obvious new intelligence, analysts and regional experts said, given Moscow had been massing troops near the border and making no secret of its unhappiness with the country s current government.
A Foreign Office spokeswoman didn't respond to questions about whether the British government had any details of timing or how Russia intended to change the leadership in Kyiv.
The scarcity of details about the plot and the sudden diplomatic push after a period on the international sidelines risked leaving Johnson open to accusations that he is exploiting a volatile international crisis to shore up his own position at home.
David Clark, a former special adviser to the Foreign Office, said it was bad that we've got ourselves into a situation where our ability to respond to what Putin is doing is damaged by wounds inflicted on ourselves politically over a period of years going back to 2003.
This is not a government that is well placed to take a lead on this issue, either in terms of domestic opinion or frankly in terms of wider western unity given the context of the Brexit, he said.
The current domestic context is of a government in trouble, a government with a track record of engineering sensational news interventions in order to distract and deflect from their own difficulties.