The last time Ukrainians heard about Yevhen Muraev was when a pro-Russian former MP unfurled a banner in central Kiev last fall that read “This is our country!” After public outcry, she was stripped a few hours later – an indication of his dwindling political wealth.
Muraev seemed destined to remain in the dark until Saturday, when the United Kingdom claimed it was okay to lead a lenient Ukrainian government as part of a conspiracy to change the Russian regime.
Western powers say Russian President Vladimir Putin is considering a re-invasion after gathering more than 100,000 troops at the border. The United States and Great Britain have warned that Moscow could overthrow Putin’s Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky in a coup.
“We have been concerned and warned about just such tactics for weeks,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Sunday, citing accusations from the United Kingdom. “This is largely part of the Russian game book.”
But the accusations of the United Kingdom, for which London did not provide any evidence and which Russia rejected, seemed imaginary to many in Ukraine – including Muraev. He posted a picture of his face photoshopped on James Bond’s body and said the allegations 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 it is a ill-conceived plan that Ukrainian society will not support. Russia has never understood Ukraine and does not want to understand, ”said Oleksiy Haran, head of research at the Foundation for Democratic Initiatives, a Kiev think tank. “Russia could have such plans, but they are absolutely absurd.”
A native of the eastern city of Kharkov, Muraev helped former Prime Minister Mykola Azarov escape across the border into Russia in 2014 after a revolution in Kiev toppled President Viktor Yanukovych, who agrees with Moscow.
Muraev remained in Ukraine as a representative of the successor to Yanukovych’s party, then separated from it in 2016 and founded two of his own. Russia put him under sanctions in 2018 – a move for which he blamed a quarrel with Viktor Medvedchuk, Putin’s commissioner and the Kremlin’s longtime main political ally in Ukraine.
He was one of three pro-Russian candidates running for president in 2019, but withdrew before the vote. Muray’s party did not reach the 5 per cent threshold to win a seat in parliament a few months later.
“The only way for a puppet government to exist is if there is an invasion [ . . .] and I just can’t believe that Yevhen Murayev could be a candidate to lead him, “said Vadim Novinsky, an oligarch and pro-Russian MP. “It’s complete nonsense.”
In recent months, Muraev, who owns a major Ukrainian TV station, began planning his return after Kiev placed Medvedchuk under house arrest last year and closed three other channels close to him.
Muraev hinted at a possible tectonic shift in Ukrainian politics in an interview on his channel in early January in which he said: “For some reason I think we will have a restart and a new government will come” that will solve the Donbas conflict by the end of the year.
“There will be many changes, and they are inevitable,” he said. “Of course, there will be an earthquake and it will be difficult [ . . .] but after them there will be a bright future. “
Oleksandr Danylyuk, the former head of Ukraine’s National Security Council, said a move against Medvedchuk could pave the way for his rival Muraev to take over as Russia’s favored representative.
“Russia has always sought agents of influence in Ukraine,” Danylyuk said. “Muraev would be an obvious choice – he fits in nicely with the pro-Russian niche previously occupied by Medvedchuk, but he also has the potential to expand beyond it because he is considered young and promising.”
In a Facebook post on Sunday, Muraev dismissed allegations that his party was in favor of Moscow. “The time of pro-Western and pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine is long gone,” he wrote.
The accusations from the United Kingdom could endanger Muraev from a similar punishment to the one he imposed on Medvedchuk.
Mihajlo Podoljak, an adviser to Zelensky’s chief of staff, did not say whether Ukraine would take action against Muraev, but said: “This is useful for Ukrainian society, which must clearly know who is who.” He promised that the Ukrainian authorities, in cooperation with our partners, will use all legal instruments that can be used to protect the sovereignty of Ukraine and the interests of Ukrainian society.
The alleged plan to install Muraev was the second Western warning of the coming Russian coup in Ukraine in a week.
The United States said earlier that Russian intelligence had similar plans in agreement with another group of Ukrainian politicians close to Medvedchuk – only one appointed by Britain.
“Many people who have been appointed as members of this future government are not even in mutual agreement,” Novinsky said. “It’s a random group of names.”
The discrepancies in the accounts of the United States and the United Kingdom suggest that the Kremlin has a number of options for achieving its goals in Ukraine, said Mark Galeotti, a professor at University College London who studies Russian security services.
“We can predict that a whole range of different, often speculative ventures will be underway. And we should not assume that this is the Kremlin’s plan, when we see it, “Galeotti said.
“The Kremlin is creating these dynamic and often chaotic situations, which will produce a whole range of different options. And they will choose and change. ”
The United States and the United Kingdom are pursuing a two-pronged strategy in an attempt to publicly expose Russia’s plans, while advocating a diplomatically agreed solution that could ease tensions.
Blinken said the United States would resume talks with Moscow after the meeting Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov llast week. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu invited his British counterpart Ben Wallace to talks in Moscow, while the Foreign Ministry said it was considering Foreign Minister Liz Truss’ request to meet with Lavrov.
Accusations of the coup could diminish the prospects for future talks with Russia, Galeotti said. “Western unity is definitely under pressure, and [the line] pushing by the US and the UK is not helping, ”he said. “This is the kind of thing that will make those conversations more difficult.”