- The Washington Times
Sunday, January 23, 2022

Moscow plans to force out Ukraine’s political leaders and install a pro-Russian puppet regime in Kyiv, British officials said over the weekend, as the West desperately tries to stave off war in Eastern Europe at a moment when Russian action against its neighbor seems all but inevitable.

The accusations from Britain’s Foreign Office late Saturday — reinforced by Secretary of State Antony Blinken but fiercely denied by the Kremlin — added even more fuel to a combustible standoff along the Russia-Ukraine border. They also put renewed pressure on the Biden administration, which is facing growing criticism at home for its refusal to unleash massive economic sanctions on Russia now rather than wait for military action.

The intelligence reports cited by top British officials underscore Russian President Vladimir Putin’s many options and his initiative in determining how the crisis plays out. Some 127,000 Russian troops massed near Ukraine could launch a full-scale invasion and takeover, take more limited border action, or serve to support intelligence, cybersecurity and disinformation operations short of war to destabilize the government in Kyiv. Such a strategy would be less evident than direct military action and would likely be much more difficult for the West to stop.

“We’ve been warning about just this kind of tactic for weeks. … This is very much part of the Russian toolkit,” Mr. Blinken told CNN’s “State of the Union” program on Sunday.

“It runs the gamut from a large, conventional incursion or invasion of Ukraine to these kinds of destabilizing activities in an attempt to topple the government. And it’s important that people be on notice about that,” he said.

In its statement Saturday, Britain named former Ukrainian lawmaker Yevhen Murayev as a leading candidate to depose Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and assume power in Kyiv. It also named other Ukrainian politicians thought to be in direct contact with Russian intelligence services, suggesting those individuals may play roles in a coup.

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The Kremlin could see it as payback for a 2014 popular revolt that drove elected pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych from power and forced him to flee to Russia.

It is highly unusual for a major world power such as the United Kingdom to release such a public statement, especially one that names the individuals thought to be involved in such a plot.

Mr. Murayev called the charges “ridiculous and funny.” He brushed aside the narrative that his Nashi party, whose predecessor party backed Mr. Yanukovych, is sympathetic to Russia.

“Everything that does not support the pro-Western path of development of Ukraine is automatically pro-Russian,” he told The Associated Press, referring to how the West interprets his party’s political positions.

‘Information’ but not proof

Neither Britain nor the U.S. gave much detail about the supposed scheme. British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said her government has “information” about a coup but offered no evidence in public.

“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,” she said in a statement released by Britain’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.

Russia must de-escalate, end its campaigns of aggression and disinformation, 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,” she said.

While backing up the general idea that Russia may be considering a coup, Mr. Blinken would not comment on the specific British charges.

The Kremlin, meanwhile, dismissed the idea outright.

“The misinformation spread by the British Foreign Office is another evidence that these are the NATO countries, led by the Anglo-Saxons, that are escalating tensions around Ukraine,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said, according to the state-supported Tass news agency.

Mr. Biden huddled Sunday with his national security team at Camp David as the U.S. and its NATO partners tried to project a unified front.

“President Biden was briefed on the current state of Russian military operations on Ukraine’s borders and discussed both our ongoing efforts to de-escalate the situation with diplomacy and our range of deterrence measures that are being coordinated closely with our allies and partners, including ongoing deliveries of security assistance to Ukraine,” a White House statement said.

Critics say Mr. Biden is missing a pivotal opportunity to seize the initiative from Mr. Putin. They say the U.S. should impose crippling economic sanctions now, with the goal of staving off Russian action.

“I believe we need to act now when it comes to pushing back against Russia. We need to show strength and not be in a position of, a doctrine of appeasement, which seems to be how President Biden has worked his administration,” Sen. Joni Ernst, Iowa Republican and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told CNN on Sunday.

“I think we have many options for deterrence when it comes to Russia. But we need to impose those now,” she said. “Putin sees every opportunity to do what he wants in Ukraine with very little pushback from the United States.”

The administration has taken some action already. Last week, the Treasury Department sanctioned four Russians accused of involvement with “Russian government-directed influence activities to destabilize Ukraine.”

Officials say there is good reason to remain patient. Fully imposing all possible sanctions now, they say, could backfire by signaling to Mr. Putin that he has little left to lose and might as well proceed with an invasion.

“The purpose of those sanctions is to deter Russian aggression. And so if they’re triggered now, you lose that deterrent effect,” Mr. Blinken said.

The administration also has begun sending more lethal aid to Ukraine. The first shipment of a $200 million U.S. security aid package for Ukraine arrived in the country on Saturday, according to the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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