Moscow seeks agents of influence in Ukraine

The last time Ukrainians heard of Yevhen Murayev was when the pro-Russian former lawmaker unfurled a banner in central Kyiv last autumn with the inscription “This is our land!” Following a public outcry, it was taken down a few hours later — an indication of his dwindling political fortunes.

Murayev seemed destined to remain in obscurity until Saturday, when the UK claimed he was in line to head up a pliant Ukrainian government as part of a Russian regime change plot.

Western powers say Russian president Vladimir Putin is considering a renewed invasion of the country after massing more than 100,000 troops at the border. The US and UK have in recent days warned that Moscow might move to topple Putin’s Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky, in a coup.

“We’ve been concerned and have been warning about exactly these kinds of tactics for weeks,” US secretary of state Antony Blinken said on Sunday, referring to the UK allegations. “This is very much part of the Russian playbook.”

Volodymyr Zelensky, president of Ukraine. The US and UK have warned that Moscow might try to topple him © Sergey Dolzhenko/AFP/Getty Images

But the UK allegations, for which London provided no evidence and which Russia has dismissed, struck many in Ukraine as far-fetched — including Murayev, who posted a picture of his face Photoshopped on to James Bond’s body and said the claims were “a question for Mr Bean”.

“If Russia really has plans to destabilise the situation in Ukraine and bring to power a pro-Russian government, then this is a poorly thought-out plan which will not be supported by Ukrainian society. Russia never understood Ukraine and it does not want to understand,” said Oleksiy Haran, head of research at the Democratic Initiatives Foundation, a Kyiv think-tank. “Russia could have such plans, but they are absolutely absurd.”

A native of the eastern city of Kharkiv, Murayev helped former prime minister Mykola Azarov escape across the border to Russia in 2014 after a revolution in Kyiv ousted the Moscow-aligned president Viktor Yanukovich.

Murayev remained in Ukraine as an MP for the successor to Yanukovych’s party, then split from it in 2016 to set up two of his own. In 2018, Russia placed him under sanctions — a move he blamed on a falling out with Viktor Medvedchuk, a Putin confidant and the Kremlin’s longstanding main political ally in Ukraine.

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

“The only way there’s going to be a puppet government is if there’s an invasion [ . . .] and I just can’t believe that Yevhen Murayev could be a candidate to lead it,” Vadim Novinsky, an oligarch and MP for a rival Russia-aligned party, said. “It’s complete nonsense.”

In recent months, Murayev, who owns a large Ukrainian TV station, began to mount plans for a political comeback after Kyiv placed Medvedchuk under house arrest and closed down three other channels close to him last year.

Murayev hinted at a possible tectonic shift in Ukrainian politics in an interview on his channel at the start of January in which he said: “For some reason I think that we will have a reboot and there will be a new government” that would resolve the Donbas conflict 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.”

Oleksandr Danylyuk, former head of Ukraine’s National Security Council, said the move against Medvedchuk could have opened up the way for his rival Murayev to take over as Russia’s favoured proxy.

“Russia has always been looking for agents of influence in Ukraine,” Danylyuk said. “Murayev would be an obvious choice — he nicely fits into the pro-Russian niche, previously occupied by Medvedchuk, but also has a potential to expand beyond it because he is considered young and promising.”

In a Facebook post on Sunday, Murayev rejected allegations that his party was sympathetic to Moscow. “The time of pro-western and pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine has gone for good,” he wrote.

Viktor Yanukovich, former Ukrainian leader, with Putin in December 2013 © Mikhail Klimentyev/Novosti/EPA

The UK accusations could put Murayev at risk of a similar punishment to that meted out to Medvedchuk.

Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Zelensky’s chief of staff, did not say whether Ukraine would take action against Murayev but said “This is useful for Ukrainian society, which must clearly know who is who.” He vowed “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 co-operation with our partners.”

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

Viktor Medvedchuk (C)
Viktor Medvedchuk (C): a Putin confidant and the Kremlin’s longstanding main political ally in Ukraine © Anna Marchenko/TASS/Getty Images

The US earlier said Russian intelligence had similar plans in concert with a different group of Ukrainian politicians close to Medvedchuk — only one of whom was also named by the UK.

“A lot of the people who are named as members of this future government aren’t even on speaking terms with each other,” Novinsky said. “It’s a random group of names.”

The discrepancies in the US and UK accounts suggested the Kremlin had an array of options to achieve its goals in Ukraine, said Mark Galeotti, a professor at University College London who studies Russia’s security services.

“We can anticipate that there will be a whole gamut of different, often speculative ventures under way. And we shouldn’t assume that when we spot one, that’s the Kremlin’s plan,” Galeotti said.

“The Kremlin creates these dynamic and often chaotic situations, which will throw up a whole variety of different options. And they will choose and they will shift.”

The US and the UK are pursuing a dual strategy of trying to expose Russia’s plans publicly while pushing for a diplomatically negotiated solution that could ease the tensions.

Blinken said the US would continue talks with Moscow after meeting Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov last week. Russia’s defence minister Sergey Shoygu has invited his UK counterpart, Ben Wallace, for talks in Moscow, while the foreign ministry said it was weighing a request from foreign secretary Liz Truss to meet Lavrov.

The coup allegations could make future talks with Russia less likely, Galeotti said. “Western unity is definitely under pressure, and [the line] being pushed by the US and UK is not helping,” he said. “This is the kind of thing that is going to make those conversations harder.”

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