Moscow seeks influencers in Ukraine

The last time Ukrainians heard about Yevhen Murayev was when the former pro-Russian lawmaker pulled up a banner in central Kyiv last fall that read, “This is our land!” After a wave of public outcry, it was taken down hours later – a sign that his political fortunes were waning.

Murayev seemed destined to remain in the dark until Saturday, when the UK announced he was fit to head a dovish Ukrainian government as part of a Russian plot for regime change.

Western power says Russian President Vladimir Putin is considering a new invasion of the country after gathering more than 100,000 troops on the border. In recent days, the United States and Britain have warned that Moscow could oust Putin’s Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky, in a coup.

“We’ve been concerned and warned about exactly these kinds of tactics for weeks,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Sunday, referring to the UK’s allegations. “This is a very important part of the Russian play.”

Volodymyr Zelensky, President of Ukraine.
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’s allegations, for which London provided no evidence and Russia has denied, distanced many in Ukraine – including Murayev, who posted a photographed face on the contest. body of James Bond and said the claims were “a question for Mr Bean”.

“If Russia really plans to destabilize the situation in Ukraine and bring a pro-Russian government to power, then this is a thoughtless plan and will not be supported by Ukrainian society. Oleksiy Haran, research lead for the Democratic Initiatives Foundation, a Kyiv think tank, said Russia has never understood Ukraine and it doesn’t want to. “Russia may have such plans, but they are completely 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 toppled President Viktor Yanukovich on the side of Moscow.

Murayev remained in Ukraine as an MP for Yanukovych’s party successor, then split from the party in 2016 to form two parties of his own. In 2018, Russia placed him under sanctions – a move he blamed on having an affair with Viktor Medvedchuk, a Putin confidant and a longtime political ally of the Kremlin. in Ukraine.

He was one of three pro-Russian candidates running for president in 2019 but voted ahead of the vote. Murayev’s party failed to reach the 5% threshold to win a parliamentary seat a few months later.

“The only way to become a puppet government is if there is an invasion [ . . .] and I cannot believe that Yevhen Murayev could be a candidate to lead it,” said Vadim Novinsky, a financier and MP for an opposition party to Russia. “It makes absolutely no sense.”

In recent months, Murayev, who owns a major Ukrainian television station, began planning a return to politics after Kyiv put Medvedchuk under house arrest and shut down three other channels close to him last year.

Murayev hinted at a possible tectonic shift in Ukrainian politics during an interview on his channel in early January in which he said: “For some reason, I think we will restart and there will be a new government” will solve the conflict Donbas issue 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 that they will have a bright future. ”

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

“Russia is always looking for influencers in Ukraine,” Danylyuk said. “Murayev would be an obvious choice – he fits perfectly into the pro-Russian market, which was previously occupied by Medvedchuk, but also has the potential to expand beyond that as he is seen as young and full of potential. hope.”

In a Facebook post on Sunday, Murayev denied accusations that his party was sympathetic to Moscow. “The days of pro-Western and pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine have passed well,” he wrote.

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

The UK’s allegations could put Murayev at risk of punishment similar to what happened to Medvedchuk.

Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Zelensky’s chief of staff, did not say whether Ukraine had taken action against Murayev but said that “This is good for Ukrainian society, it must be clear who is who.” He pledged that “All legal tools 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 scheme to install Murayev was the second Western warning of a Russian coup in Ukraine in a week.

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

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

“Many of these so-called members of this future government don’t even talk to each other,” Novinsky said. “It’s a bunch of random names.”

Mark Galeotti, a professor at University College London who studies Russia’s security services, said the disparity in the US and UK accounts shows the Kremlin has a range of options to achieve its goals. in Ukraine.

“We can predict that there will be a variety of different speculative projects underway. And we shouldn’t assume that when we find out it was the Kremlin’s plan,” said Galeotti.

“The Kremlin creates these dynamic and often chaotic situations, which present a variety of options. And they will choose and they will change.”

The US and UK are pursuing a dual strategy of trying to make Russia’s plans public while pushing for a diplomatic negotiated solution that could defuse tensions.

Blinken said the US will continue to negotiate with Moscow after the meeting Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrovnext week. Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu invited his UK counterpart, Ben Wallace, to talks in Moscow, while the Foreign Office said it was considering a request to meet Foreign Minister Liz Truss from British Foreign Secretary Lavrov.

Galeotti said the coup allegations could make future negotiations with Russia less likely. “Western unity is certainly under pressure, and [the line] being pushed by the US and UK doesn’t help either,” he said. “This is the kind of thing that will make those conversations more difficult.”

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