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 the former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, a Moscow-backed politician who was deposed in 2014 by a pro-Western revolution. The Kremlin has always referred to the events of 2014 as a Western-backed coup d tat, pointing out the small-scale financial support that Western embassies in Kyiv gave to non-governmental organizations involved in the uprising.
Russia is trying to gather an invasion force on three sides of Ukraine. It was not clear from the statement released Saturday by Britain's Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office FCDO whether 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.
The Russian government is considering deploying 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. According to the statement, Yevhen Murayev, a former pro-Russian MP from Mr. Yanukovych's disbanded Party of Regions, is being considered as a potential candidate for Russian intelligence services to lead the Moscow-backed regime.
The information being released today shines light on Russian activity designed to subvert Ukraine, and provides 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. Any Russian military incursion into Ukraine would be a huge strategic mistake with severe costs, as the UK and our partners have said repeatedly. Four other Yanukovych-era officials have been named as maintaining links with Russian intelligence officers currently involved in planning for an attack on Ukraine, according to the statement. The four are former prime minister Mykola Azarov, former deputy prime minister Serhiy Arbuzov, former chief of staff Andriy Kluyev and 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 on Thursday. A statement from the U.S. Treasury said the four were working with Russia's FSB security service to take over the government of Ukraine and control Ukraine's critical infrastructure with an occupying Russian force. On Saturday, life in Kyiv continued as normal with businesses operating and pedestrians wandering the city's main Khreshchatyk Street on a snowy afternoon, but there is a growing sense in the international community that Russian military moves may be imminent.
CNN and Fox News reported that the United States is preparing to order an evacuation of its non-essential diplomatic staff in Ukraine as soon as Monday. The report, which quoted unnamed U.S. officials, said that the State Department was planning to encourage Americans in Ukraine to leave the country on commercial flights while those are still available. There is no known timetable for the evacuating Canadian diplomatic staff from Ukraine, though all Western embassies in Kyiv are making contingency plans. Since January 15, Canada has warned its citizens against non-essential travel to Ukraine.
Russia has dismissed talk of a looming invasion as an invention of Western media. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova lashed out at a Bloomberg News report on Saturday, saying Chinese President Xi Jinping had told Russian President Vladimir Putin not to attack Ukraine during the Beijing Winter Olympics, which begin February 4 and run until February 20.
In a post to her Telegram channel, Ms. Zakharova pointed out that the 2008 Russia-Georgia war had taken place during the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing. She claimed that Georgia, which had a pro-Western government at the time, started the 12 day conflict and suggested that Ukraine and its allies in the West might try to cause a February conflict to spoil this year's Winter Games in Beijing.