The Foreign Office has said that it had exposed evidence of a plot to install a pro-Moscow government in Ukraine, and Boris Johnson promised to “ramp up pressure on Russia”, as his own domestic political troubles deepened.
Saturday’s rare reference to intelligence-gathering went into almost no detail about a conspiracy that, if accurate, could mean a serious escalation in the threat to Ukraine. Politicians there were sceptical that the government could be replaced without a full-blown invasion of the capital, Kyiv.
The Foreign Office also said it had information on former Ukrainian politicians who had links with Russian intelligence services, and listed five men. “Some of these have contact with Russian intelligence officers currently involved in the planning for an attack,” the statement added.
However four of the five men live in exile in Moscow, making their ties to Russia’s leadership less a matter of subterfuge than public record.
The Foreign Office’s claims were thrown into further confusion when the man it named as a “potential candidate” as Moscow’s presidential pick told the Observer he would make an unlikely candidate to head a puppet government for Moscow.
“You’ve made my evening. The British Foreign Office seems confused,” said former Ukrainian MP Yevhen Murayev, laughing. “It isn’t very logical. I’m banned from Russia. Not only that but money from my father’s firm there has been confiscated.”
The Foreign Office statement was followed by an intervention from No 10 that Johnson “has pushed for a gear change on the Ukraine situation”, after a period when his government appeared to take a back seat on international diplomacy around this issue, while battling heavy political challenges over lockdown-busting parties.
While US president Joe Biden and a host of European leaders have made a series of interventions on Ukraine over the past week, the prime minster has largely avoided the recent flurry of diplomacy aimed at averting war. Last week, as high-level talks took place across Europe, the UK’s defence and foreign secretaries, Ben Wallace and Liz Truss, were both in Australia.
“It’s been striking that in this week of acute tension in Europe, the prime minister seems to have been absent from top-level Ukraine diplomacy, and the foreign secretary has managed to be in the wrong hemisphere,” said Peter Ricketts, former national security adviser and former permanent secretary at the Foreign Office.
In Ukraine, Vasyl Filipchuk, a former spokesperson for Ukraine’s foreign ministry, who now runs a thinktank, described the British allegations of a plot as “ridiculous”. Even a rigged election would not bring the pro-Russian actors power, and trying to install them by force would mean a very long and very bloody fight, he claimed.
“This scenario would only work with a fully fledged invasion taking over Kyiv,” he said. “The city would be decimated, its land burned and a million people would flee. We have 100,000 people in the capital with arms, who will fight … There may be a plan but it’s bullshit.”
The prominent Russian TV journalist Yevgeny Kiselyov, who moved to Ukraine in 2008, said that mainstream opposition figures who opposed Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, would never talk to Russian spy agencies, however unhappy they were with the present government in Kyiv.
Russian intelligence had a history of telling the Kremlin what it wanted to hear, rather than objective reality, he added.
The Foreign Office statement seemed plausible but did not contain any obvious new intelligence, analysts and regional experts in the UK said, given that Moscow has been massing troops near the border and makes no secret of its unhappiness with the country’s current government.
A Foreign Office spokesperson declined to respond to questions about whether the British government had any details of timing or the method that Russia intended to use to change the leadership in Kyiv.
The scarcity of details about the plot, and the sudden diplomatic push after a period on the international sidelines, risked leaving Johnson open to charges that he is exploiting a volatile international crisis to shore up his own position at home.
“It is bad we’ve got ourselves into a situation now where our ability to respond to what Putin is doing is damaged by wounds inflicted on ourselves politically over a period of years going back to 2003,” said David Clark, a former special adviser to the Foreign Office.
“This is not a government that’s well placed to take a lead on this issue, either in terms of domestic opinion, or frankly, in terms of wider western unity given the context of Brexit,” he added.
“The current immediate domestic context is of a government in trouble, a government with a track record, frankly, of engineering sensational news interventions in order to distract and deflect from their own difficulties.”