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UK claims Russia seeking to replace Ukraine government with pro-Moscow ally

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By Euronews  with AP
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A convoy of Russian armoured vehicles moves along a highway in Crimea, Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022.
A convoy of Russian armoured vehicles moves along a highway in Crimea, Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022.   -   Copyright  AP Photo, File

Ukraine said on Sunday it wants to break up all pro-Russian groups following British accusations concerning Moscow's intentions amid the security crisis.

"Our country will continue its policy of dismantling all oligarchic and political structures able to work towards destabilising Ukraine or being complicit with Russian occupants," Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhaïlo Podoliak told AFP.

The British government on Saturday accused Russia of seeking to replace Ukraine’s government with a pro-Moscow administration, identifying a former Ukrainian lawmaker it claims the Kremlin is considering as a potential candidate.

Moscow responded by accusing the British government of disinformation, urging London to "stop spreading nonsense".

The UK government made the claim based on an intelligence assessment, amid a war of words between Moscow and the West over Russia’s designs on Ukraine.

"We have information that indicates the Russian Government is looking to install a pro-Russian leader in Kyiv as it considers whether to invade and occupy Ukraine. The former Ukrainian MP Yevhen Murayev is being considered as a potential candidate," the UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said in a statement.

Yevhen Murayev is head of the small pro-Russian party Nashi, which currently has no seats in Ukraine’s parliament.

Britain’s Foreign Office named several other Ukrainian politicians, some of whom Truss said "have contact with Russian intelligence officers currently involved in the planning for an attack on Ukraine".

The information "shines a light on the extent of Russian activity designed to subvert Ukraine, and is an insight into Kremlin thinking," she added.

Truss urged Russia to "de-escalate, end its campaigns of aggression and disinformation, and pursue a path of diplomacy," and reiterated Britain’s view that "any Russian military incursion into Ukraine would be a massive strategic mistake with severe costs".

Moscow responded on Sunday by dismissing London's claims outright. The Russian foreign ministry took to Twitter in English to accuse the British government of disinformation, adding that NATO members "led by the Anglo-Saxon nations" were escalating tensions over Ukraine.

"We urge the Foreign Office to stop spreading nonsense," the ministry said.

Ukraine's ambassador to the UK, Vadym Prystaiko, told British broadcaster Sky News the claim didn't surprise him, saying it wasn't the first time, "historically and in recent times", that Russia had tried to replace the Kyiv government with a pro-Moscow administration.

The pro-Russian politician named by London as the Kremlin's potential choice to lead a new Ukrainian government described NATO last week as a "geopolitical baton" of the United States.

Speaking on his own Nash TV channel last week, Yevhen Murayev suggested Moscow would never return Russian-annexed Crimea or the eastern region of Donbas, which is under control of Russia-backed separatists, to Kyiv.

Britain has sent anti-tank weapons to Ukraine as part of efforts to bolster its defences against a potential Russian attack. But deputy prime minister Dominic Raab said on Sunday that any prospect of a British military deployment to Ukraine was "extremely unlikely".

"We're standing shoulder to shoulder (with Ukraine) saying there'll be very serious consequences if Russia takes this move to try and invade, but also install a puppet regime," he added.

Raab stopped short of saying the UK would support the idea of freezing Russia out of the international banking system, although he said the government would "readily look at" financial sanctions.

Amid diplomatic efforts to defuse the crisis, UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace is expected to meet Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu for talks in Moscow. No timing has been given for the meeting, which would be the first UK-Russia bilateral defence talks since 2013.

The US has mounted an aggressive campaign in recent months to unify its European allies against a new Russian invasion of Ukraine. The White House called the UK government assessment “deeply concerning” and said it stands with the duly elected Ukrainian government.

President Joe Biden spent Saturday at the presidential retreat Camp David with his senior national security team. An official said the discussions included efforts to de-escalate the situation with diplomacy and deterrence measures being coordinated closely with allies and partners, including security assistance to Ukraine.

The Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania plan to send US-made anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles to Ukraine in solidarity with the country, a move that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken welcomed on Saturday.

Earlier in the week, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov described the West supplying arms to Ukraine as extremely dangerous and said the shipments “do nothing to reduce tensions.”

Moscow has massed tens of thousands of troops near the Russia-Ukraine border, leading to fears of an invasion. The West has rejected Moscow’s main demands — promises from NATO that Ukraine will never be added as a member, that no alliance weapons will be deployed near Russian borders, and that it will pull back its forces from Central and Eastern Europe.

A meeting on Friday between Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov ended with no breakthrough.

Additional sources • AFP