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U.K. accuses Russia of scheming to install a pro-Kremlin government in Ukraine

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The British government on Saturday accused Russia of organizing a plot to install a pro-Moscow government in Ukraine, as the Kremlin masses troops and materiel near the Ukrainian border in what Western officials fear is an impending military assault on the neighboring nation.

The U.K. Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office gave relatively little information about the intelligence unveiled Saturday other than to say that the Russian government was considering trying to make a Russia-leaning former member of Ukraine's parliament, Yevhen Murayev, the country's new 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," U.K. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said in a statement, calling on Russia to de-escalate and pursue a path of diplomacy.

"As the U.K. and our partners have said repeatedly, any Russian military incursion into Ukraine would be a massive strategic mistake with severe costs," Truss said.

British authorities also said they had information showing how Russia's intelligence services maintain links with numerous former Ukrainian politicians. Some of those former Ukrainian politicians are in contact with Russian intelligence officers planning the attack on Ukraine, the British government said.

The Russian Foreign Ministry denied the allegations in a Twitter statement, saying the British announcement was evidence that NATO countries, "led by the Anglo-Saxons," are escalating tensions around Ukraine.

"We call on the British Foreign Office to stop its provocative activities and focus on studying the history of the Tatar-Mongol yoke," the Russian Foreign Ministry added.

In comments to the U.K.'s Daily Telegraph, Murayev, the owner of a pro-Russian television channel in Ukraine, said he was amused by the allegations.

"I have a hard time digesting stupidity and nonsense: Maybe someone wants to shut down yet another independent TV channel," he said in a series of text messages, according to the Telegraph.

"As someone who has been under Russian sanctions for four years, barred from Russia as a national security threat and whose father got his assets frozen in Russia, I find it hard to comment on the Foreign Office's statement," he added.

Murayev posted on social media Sunday morning a statement that did not mention the accusations against him, but said that Ukrainians needed leaders who "who will not create confrontation on linguistic or religious grounds."

"The time of pro-Western and pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine is gone forever," he said.

Britain also named four former associates of ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych as examples of former politicians in contact with Russian intelligence but did not say whether those four were involved directly in the plot to install Murayev.

Yanukovych fled Ukraine for Russia in 2014 as a pro-Western uprising on Kyiv's central square, known as the Maidan, ushered in a Europe-friendly government. Russia reacted by annexing Crimea from Ukraine and fueling a separatist war in the country's east.  

The four former associates that the British government named as contacts of Russian intelligence are former Ukrainian prime minister Mykola Azarov, former first deputy prime minister Serhiy Arbuzov, former Yanukovych chief of staff Andriy Klyuyev and former deputy head of the Ukrainian National Security Council Vladimir Sivkovich.

The four men could not immediately be reached for comment. The British government made the accusations in a statement released at 10:30 p.m. Saturday, after it was already the middle of the night farther east.

Rather than attempting an overt overthrow of the pro-Western government in Kyiv, analysts suspect that if Putin attempted a coup, he would instead seek to encourage the collapse of the current government and covertly promote a pro-Russian Ukrainian politician who would have more local credibility. The British government's announcement was an attempt to thwart that activity.

"The Russians have a plan and we clearly think it's worth people knowing about it," said a Western official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence matters. "Calling it out takes away the element of surprise and also reduces the chances of Russia succeeding if they actually attempt it."

"When the Russians attempt this and say, 'This is an independent Ukrainian political movement,' we can say, 'No, that's not true, this is the work of your intelligence apparatus which we've been warning about,' " the official said.

U.S. officials said they have no reason to doubt the British intelligence.

"This kind of plotting is deeply concerning," White House National Security Council spokeswoman Emily Horne said in a statement. "The Ukrainian people have the sovereign right to determine their own future, and we stand with our democratically-elected partners in Ukraine."

The British government's announcement came two days after the U.S. Treasury sanctioned a group of current and former Ukrainian officials, accusing some of them of helping Russia lay the groundwork to install a Moscow-friendly government in Ukraine.

"Russia has directed its intelligence services to recruit current and former Ukrainian government officials to prepare to take over the government of Ukraine and to control Ukraine's critical infrastructure with an occupying Russian force," the Treasury Department said.

Among the people Treasury sanctioned Thursday was Siv­kovich, one of the former Ukrainian officials the British government accused of having contacts with Russian intelligence.

In its sanctions announcement, Treasury accused Siv­kovich of working with "Russian intelligence actors" to build support for Ukraine to officially cede Crimea to Russia in exchange for a drawdown in Donbas, where Russia has fueled a separatist war against Ukrainian forces.

Ukrainian officials were surprised by the idea that a Russian plot would seek to install Murayev, a relatively marginal figure in Ukrainian politics who was sanctioned by Russia in 2018, as the country's new leader.

On his Facebook page, Murayev posted an image of himself edited into a James Bond "Skyfall" logo, appearing to poke fun at the idea that he was the subject of an international espionage gambit.

Murayev is from Ukraine's eastern Kharkiv region, a Russian-speaking part of the country north of Donbas. He is a former member of Yanukovych's Party of Regions and other Russia-leaning political factions that emerged after the party's implosion in 2014.

Murayev ran for Ukraine's president in 2019 but dropped out of the race.

Murayev gave an interview about the upcoming year to his television station that was posted on YouTube on Jan. 1. In it, he said the next year would "definitely be better" — that he believed "for some reason" there would be a change in government in Kyiv, which would lead to a "comprehensive agreement" ending the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

"There will be a lot of changes, and they're inevitable," he said. "Therefore, honestly, I'm in a terrific mood in expectation of this year."

— David Stern contributed reporting from Kyiv.

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