By Paul Sandle, Michael Holden and Natalia Zinets
LONDON/KIYV – Russia will face severe economic sanctions if it installs a puppet regime in Ukraine, a senior U.K. minister said on Sunday after Britain accused the Kremlin of seeking to install a pro-Russian leader there.
Britain made the accusation late on Saturday, also saying Russian intelligence officers had been in contact with a number of former Ukrainian politicians as part of plans for an invasion.
The Russian Foreign Ministry dismissed the comments as “disinformation,” accusing Britain and NATO of “escalating tensions” over Ukraine. The British claims came after the top U.S. and Russian diplomats failed on Friday to make a major breakthrough in talks to resolve the crisis over Ukraine, although they agreed to keep talking.
Mykhailo Podolyak, a Ukrainian adviser to the presidential office, said the allegations should be taken seriously.
“There’ll be very serious consequences if Russia takes this move to try and invade but also install a puppet regime,” British Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab told Sky News.
The British accusations, first made in a statement by the foreign ministry, come at a time of high tensions with the West over Russia’s massing of troops near the border with Ukraine.
Moscow has insisted it has no plans to invade.
The foreign ministry said it had information the Russian government was considering former Ukrainian lawmaker Yevhen Murayev as a potential candidate to head a pro-Russian leadership.
Murayev himself poured cold water on the notion that Russia wants to install him as Ukraine’s leader, in comments to British newspapers and in an interview with Reuters.
“This morning I already read in all the news publications this conspiracy theory: absolutely unproven, absolutely unfounded,” Murayev told Reuters in a video call, adding he was considering legal action.
He denied having any contact with Russian intelligence officers and dismissed the idea that he could be in league with the Kremlin as “stupid,” given he was placed under Russian sanctions in 2018.
Although he says he wants Ukraine to be independent from Russia as well as the West, Murayev, 45, has promoted some views that align with the Kremlin’s narratives on Ukraine.
Also noting he was under sanctions, the Russian Embassy in London mocked the “obvious deterioration” of British expertise on the region.
The British foreign ministry declined to provide evidence to back its accusations. A ministry source said it was not usual practice to share intelligence, and the details had only been declassified after careful consideration to deter Russian aggression.
In a message to Reuters, Ukrainian adviser Podolyak acknowledged there was doubt among Ukrainians as to whether Murayev was “too ridiculous a figure” to be the Kremlin’s pick to lead Ukraine. But he added that Russia had propped up previously minor figures in leadership positions in annexed Crimea and separatist-held Donbass.
Therefore “one should take this information as seriously as possible,” he said.
According to a poll by the Razumkov’s Center think tank conducted in December 2021, Murayev was ranked seventh among candidates for the 2024 presidential election, with 6.3% support.
Russia has made security demands on the United States including a halt to NATO’s eastward expansion and a pledge that Ukraine will never be allowed to join the Western military alliance.
U.S. National Security Council spokesperson Emily Horne said in a statement: “This kind of plotting is deeply concerning. The Ukrainian people have the sovereign right to determine their own future, and we stand with our democratically-elected partners in Ukraine.”
Britain, which this week supplied 2,000 missiles and a team of military trainers to Ukraine, also said it had information that Russian intelligence services were maintaining links with numerous former Ukrainian politicians, including senior figures with links to ex-President Viktor Yanukovich.
Yanukovich fled to Russia in 2014 after three months of protests against his rule and was sentenced in absentia to 13 years in jail on treason charges in 2019.