The UK has accused the Kremlin of seeking to install a pro-Russian leader in Ukraine as fears of a Russian invasion of Ukraine grow.
The Foreign Office said in a statement Russian intelligence officers had been in contact with a number of former Ukrainian politicians as part of plans for an invasion and that former parliamentarian Yevgen Murayev was being considered as a potential leader.
“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,” said UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss.
“Russia must de-escalate, end its campaigns of aggression and disinformation, and pursue a path of diplomacy.”
The British foreign ministry did not provide evidence to back its accusations.
Russia will face severe economic sanctions if it installs a “puppet regime” in Ukraine, Britain’s deputy prime minister Dominic Raab said on Sunday.
“There’ll be very serious consequences if Russia takes this move to try and invade but also install a puppet regime,” Raab told Sky News.
‘Stop spreading nonsense’
Murayev, the man named by London, lost his seat in the Ukrainian parliament when his party failed to win five percent of the vote in the 2019 elections. He is the founder of TV channel Nash, which regulators have been seeking to shut down since last year, accusing it of airing pro-Russian propaganda.
Four other politicians named by the UK as possible Russian picks were Mykola Azarov, Sergiy Arbuzov, Andriy Kluyev, and Volodymyr Sivkovich.
Murayev said on Sunday his country needed new leadership.
“The Ukrainian people need rule of law, peace, sound and pragmatic economic and social policies, and new political leaders,” Murayev wrote on Facebook.
Moscow has insisted it has no plans to invade Ukraine, despite currently having about 100,000 troops on the Ukraine border. The Russian foreign ministry dismissed London’s claims as “disinformation” and urged London to “stop spreading nonsense”.
☝️ We urge the Foreign Office to stop spreading nonsense.
— MFA Russia 🇷🇺 (@mfa_russia) January 23, 2022
In Washington, DC, US National Security Council spokeswoman Emily Horne said Russia’s alleged “plotting” was “deeply concerning”.
“The Ukrainian people have the sovereign right to determine their own future, and we stand with our democratically elected partners in Ukraine,” Horne said.
The claims came hours after a senior UK defence source said Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu had accepted an invitation to meet his UK counterpart Ben Wallace to discuss the crisis.
Tensions have soared in recent weeks as Russian troops mass on Ukraine’s border along with an arsenal of tanks, fighting vehicles, artillery and missiles.
These accusations came at the end of a week of intense international diplomacy, which concluded with Washington and Moscow’s top diplomats, Antony Blinken and Sergey Lavrov, failing to make a major breakthrough but agreeing to keep working to ease tensions.
‘Very expensive enterprise’
Andrey Kortunov, director of the Russian International Affairs Council, told Al Jazeera the UK allegations were implausible.
“If you want to stage a successful coup you need to have a lot of support from the inside, which Putin apparently doesn’t have,” Kortunov said.
“On top of that, if you change the government, you own Ukraine … and that would be a very expensive enterprise for the Russian leadership.”
The analyst said Moscow may be mobilising troops out of concern that Ukraine may try to regain the Donbas region by force, rather than preparing to invade.
Moscow seized the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 after Ukrainians deposed their pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych. A few weeks later, a pro-Russian rebellion broke out in eastern Ukraine that has since killed more than 13,000 people.
The UK is among a handful of Western nations rushing weapons to Ukraine, including anti-tank missiles, while other countries including Germany have refused to supply arms to Kyiv.
The US has sent 90 tonnes of ammunition to Ukraine as part of an additional $200m of “lethal aid” approved by President Joe Biden in late December.
Ukraine has also been enlisting civilians in military training programmes. Arsen Herasimenko, a university student in plant science, said he had chosen to enlist.
“I have to protect my family,” he told Al Jazeera. “Of course, I hope this situation will de-escalate and that I can continue my scientific work.”
The government is hoping to form at least 25 brigades for deployment around the country.
Al Jazeera’s Hoda Abdel-Hamid, reporting from Kyiv, said the units were part of a new “strategic defence plan” to provide backup in case the army is overwhelmed.
“These [popular resistance] units are now part of the military,” she said. “Thirty-two percent of Ukrainians say they are ready to enlist.”