The British government surprised the world Saturday night by issuing an unusual public statement accusing the Kremlin of pursuing a plot to install a pro-Russian leader in Ukraine. Britain’s Foreign Office said Russian intelligence officers had been in touch with numerous former Ukrainian politicians as part of its plans and had already chosen a potential candidate to head up the new government. The British foreign ministry didn’t provide much in the way of evidence to back its explosive assertions that were immediately denied by Moscow. “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,” Liz Truss, Britain’s foreign secretary, said in a statement. “Russia must de-escalate, end its campaigns of aggression and disinformation, and pursue a path of diplomacy.”
Britain’s Foreign Office specifically mentioned that Moscow was considering making Yevheniy Murayev, a former Ukrainian lawmaker, the leader of this new puppet government. Murayev outright laughed off the allegations. “You’ve made my evening. The British Foreign Office seems confused,” Murayev said. “It isn’t very logical. I’m banned from Russia. Not only that but money from my father’s firm there has been confiscated.” British officials also said they had information that Russia’s intelligence services had ties to several former Ukrainian politicians to carry out the plot. Coming at a time of high tensions between Russia and the West over Ukraine, Moscow insisted the statement only marked the latest provocation. “The disinformation spread by the British Foreign Office is more evidence that it is the NATO countries, led by the Anglo-Saxons, who are escalating tensions around Ukraine,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on Sunday.
British officials said they issued the unusual statement in part to let the Kremlin know that they were wise to its plans for Ukraine. Intelligence officials in Washington tell the New York Times that they believe the British intelligence is right. “The Russians have a plan and we clearly think it’s worth people knowing about it,” a Western official tells the Washington Post. “Calling it out takes away the element of surprise and also reduces the chances of Russia succeeding if they actually attempt it.”
A senior U.K. official warned Sunday that Russia would face severe economic sanctions if it were to proceed with the effort to install a puppet government in Ukraine. “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 on Sunday. The threat, coupled with the surprise Saturday night announcement, shows how Britain is trying to forge a unique path two years after leaving the European Union. “The U.K. is differentiating itself from Germany and France, and to some extent, even the U.S.,” Malcolm Chalmers, the deputy director general of the Royal United Services Institute, a think tank in London, tells the New York Times. “That comes out of Brexit, and the sense that we have to define ourselves as an independent middle power.”