Moscow is looking for agents of influence in Ukraine

The last time Ukrainians heard about Yevgeny Muraev was when a pro-Russian former lawmaker unfurled a banner in downtown Kiev last fall reading “This is our land!” condition.

Muraev appears destined to remain unaccounted for until Saturday, when the United Kingdom said he was on the line to lead a flexible Ukrainian government as part of a conspiracy to change Russia’s regime.

Western powers say Russian President Vladimir Putin is considering resuming the invasion after recruiting more than 100,000 troops at the border. The United States and the United Kingdom have warned that Moscow could take action to oust Putin’s Ukrainian counterpart, Vladimir Zelensky, through a coup.

“We have been concerned and warned about these types of tactics for weeks,” said US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken on Sunday, citing the United Kingdom’s allegations. “It’s a big part of the Russian game.

Vladimir Zelensky, President of Ukraine.
The United States and the United Kingdom warn that Moscow may try to overthrow President Vladimir Zelensky © Sergey Dolzhenko / AFP / Getty Images

But the UK’s claims, for which London did not provide evidence and which Russia rejected, seemed to many in Ukraine to be exaggerated – including Muraev. He posted a photo of his face photoshopped on James Bond’s body and said the allegations were “a question to Mr Bean”.

“If Russia really has plans to destabilize the situation in Ukraine and bring a pro-Russian government to power, then this is a ill-considered plan that will not be supported by Ukrainian society. Russia has never understood Ukraine and does not want to understand, “said Alexei Haran, head of research at the Democratic Initiatives Foundation, a think tank in Kiev. “Russia may have such plans, but they are absolutely absurd.

A native of the eastern city of Kharkiv, Muraev helped former Prime Minister Mykola Azarov flee the Russian border in 2014 after a revolution in Kiev overthrew Moscow-elected President Viktor Yanukovych.

Muraev remained in Ukraine as an MP for the successor to Yanukovych’s party, then separated from it in 2016 to create two of his own. In 2018, Russia placed him under sanctions, a move he accused of feuding with Viktor Medvedchuk, Putin’s confidant and longtime key Kremlin political ally in Ukraine.

He was one of three pro-Russian candidates to run for president in 2019, but dropped out before the vote. Muraev’s party did not reach the 5 per cent threshold to win seats in parliament a few months later.

“The only way to have a puppet government is if there is an invasion [ . . .] and I just can’t believe that Evhen Muraev could be a candidate to head it, “said Vadim Novinski, an oligarch and pro-Russian MP. “That’s complete nonsense.”

In recent months, Muraev, who owns a major Ukrainian television station, has begun making plans to return after Kiev placed Medvedchuk under house arrest and closed three other nearby channels last year.

Muraev hinted at a possible tectonic change in Ukrainian politics in an interview with his channel in early January, saying: “For some reason, I think we will have a restart and a new government,” which will solve the problem. The conflict in Donbass by the end of the year.

“There will be many changes and they are inevitable,” he said. “Of course, there will be upheavals and they will be difficult [ . . .] but after them there will be a bright future. “

Alexander Danilyuk, a former head of Ukraine’s National Security Council, said the move against Medvedchuk could pave the way for his rival, Muraev, to take over as Russia’s preferred representative.

“Russia has always been looking for agents of influence in Ukraine,” Danilyuk said. “Muraev would be an obvious choice – he fits in well with the pro-Russian niche previously occupied by Medvedchuk, but he also has the potential to expand beyond it because he considers himself young and promising.

In a Facebook post on Sunday, Muraev dismissed claims that his party was sympathetic to Moscow. “The time of pro-Western and pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine is gone forever,” he wrote.

Vladimir Putin in 2013 with Viktor Yanukovych, the former pro-Russian Ukrainian leader who was ousted the following year © Mikhail Klimentyev / Novosti / EPA

The UK’s accusations could put Muraev at risk of a sentence like Medvedchuk’s.

Mikhail Podoliak, an adviser to Zelensky’s chief of staff, did not say whether Ukraine would take action against Muraev, but said: “This is useful for Ukrainian society, which needs to know clearly who is who.” He promised that “all legal instruments that can be used to protect Ukraine’s sovereignty and the interests of Ukrainian society will be used by the Ukrainian authorities in cooperation with our partners.”

The alleged plan to install Muraev was the second Western warning of an impending Russian coup in Ukraine in a week.

Victor Medvedchuk (C)
Viktor Medvedchuk (center): Putin’s confidant and ally of the Kremlin in Kiev, was placed under house arrest last year © Anna Marchenko / TASS / Getty Images

Earlier, the United States said Russian intelligence had similar plans in cooperation with another group of Ukrainian politicians close to Medvedchuk – only one of whom was also named by the United Kingdom.

“Many of the people nominated as members of this future government do not even talk to each other,” Novinski said. “It’s a random group of names.”

The discrepancies in the accounts of the United States and the United Kingdom suggest that the Kremlin has a number of opportunities to achieve its goals in Ukraine, said Mark Galeotti, a professor at University College London who studies Russian security services.

“We can expect that there will be a whole range of different, often speculative endeavors. And we should not assume that when we see one, this is the Kremlin’s plan, “Galeotti said.

“The Kremlin is creating these dynamic and often chaotic situations that will lead to a whole range of different options. And they will choose and move. “

The United States and the United Kingdom are pursuing a two-pronged strategy, trying to expose Russia’s plans publicly while pushing for a solution through diplomatic talks that could ease tensions.

Blinken said the United States would resume talks with Moscow after meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov last week. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu invited his British counterpart Ben Wallace for talks in Moscow, while the foreign ministry said it was considering Foreign Minister Liz Truss’s request to meet with Lavrov.

Accusations of a coup could make future talks with Russia less likely, Galeotti said. “Western unity is definitely under pressure [the line] “Being pressured by the United States and the United Kingdom is not helping,” he said. “That’s what will make these conversations more difficult.”

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