Russian President Vladimir Putin is apparently so confident his military will successfully invade and take over Ukraine that he’s already thinking about the pro-Russia puppets he could install in a new government in Kyiv.
That’s the overly confident plot that the British government revealed to The Daily Beast this week—with Putin supposedly planning to push in a new regime in Ukraine more friendly to Russia, composed of a handful of former Ukrainian politicians.
The plot, and the former politicians it would lean on, are not in a really great position to meet that call to duty, analysts say. All four of the former Ukrainian politicians Russia has allegedly chosen for the task were part of ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych’s inner circle. Several of them fled Ukraine after protests sprung up against Yanukovych’s government, leaving Ukrainians high and dry in the face of chaos.
Some of them are also accused of causing the crisis in 2014 in the first place.
Yevhen Murayev, the man the Russians have identified as their candidate to lead up the puppet pro-Russia government in Kyiv, has plenty of practice parroting Kremlin propaganda. He owns a pro-Russian TV channel where he gets to spout off. But what he’s not a pro at is being a politician: He founded a party in 2018, called Nash—or “Ours”—but has failed to gain any seats in parliament.
One of the men the Brits also identified, Vladimir Sivkovich, has been up to all kinds of shenanigans. The U.S. government sanctioned Sivkovich for alleged links to the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) and involvement in a Russian influence operation to cede Crimea to Russia—a move that no doubt curried favor with the Kremlin, which illegally annexed Crimea in 2014.
Sivkovich also participated in an influence operation targeting the 2020 U.S. presidential elections, according to a U.S. government assessment.
Another Ukrainian identified in the plot, Mykola Azarov, is marked with red flags, too—literally. Interpol put out a red notice on Azarov, the former prime minister of Ukraine from 2010-2014, in 2015. He has also dabbled in corruption and was accused of accepting bribes to appoint an ally as deputy prime minister.
That man, Andriy Kluyev, is also allegedly a part of the Russian scheme to take control in Kyiv. A former secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, Kluyev has faced accusations of being involved in mass killings, according to Reuters.
Kluyev’s track record gets even messier. He was allegedly involved in the payments that were the focus of the federal trial of President Donald Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort. (Manafort was found guilty of bank fraud and filing false tax returns.)
Another man allegedly part of Putin’s coup plot, Serhiy Arbuzov, was paid off to foment unrest in Odessa in 2014, according to Ukraine’s security service, the SBU.
Both the Russians and Murayev, a former member of the Ukrainian parliament, have suggested the British intelligence is bad.
Though their infamous pasts sound pro-Kremlin, the alleged coup plot seems to make very little sense for the political and geographical realities on the ground, leaving Putin’s calculus out of step with what might be considered a smart move, analysts say.
There is no way the individuals named in the plot would garner any level of support from Ukrainians, according to Bill Taylor, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.
“It is credible that they would be candidates for the Russians if the Russians did have a scheme, a plan for a coup—which is what this would be—to install a Russia-friendly government,” Taylor, who says he knows two of the former Ukrainian politicians identified in the plot, told The Daily Beast.
But it’s implausible to think that Russian backing would trickle down to the populace.
“Do these people reflect the views, could they ever be supported by Ukrainian people? The answer is no,” Taylor said.
It would also almost necessarily require Russian forces to conduct a total assault and takeover of the capital, leaving all sorts of destruction in Kyiv in their wake, according to Vasyl Filipchuk, a former spokesperson for Ukraine’s foreign ministry.
“This scenario would only work with a fully fledged invasion taking over Kyiv,” Filipchuk told The Guardian. “The city would be decimated, its land burned… There may be a plan but it’s bullshit.”
The disclosure from the U.K. Foreign Office of the Russian plot was a rare move, as revealing a sensitive piece of intelligence like this could burn precious intelligence-collection channels. Intelligence agencies typically prefer to hold that information closely.
The release doesn’t reveal many details about the scheme, and some analysts have suggested that the plot is so far-fetched that it might be the product of an intentional leak or plant of information from the Russians, aimed at sowing confusion in the buildup to conflict.
But a senior U.S. State Department official echoed concerns about Russia trying to destabilize the Ukrainian government in the coming days, suggesting the U.S. government is aware of similar plots. Indeed, a senior administration official told The Daily Beast earlier this month that Russia is preparing disinformation and sabotage as part of its plot to potentially attack Ukraine.
Concerns about the plot are ringing through the halls of Congress, too.
”The most important thing that we should be doing next is to prepare for the eventuality that should Ukraine get invaded and the Russian government tries to prop up a pro-Russian puppet regime, that we as Congress need to continue to advocate for the true [Ukrainian] democratically elected government,” Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-AZ) told The Daily Beast.
And yet, the coup plot still seems like a desperate attempt to force Russia’s will in Ukraine without any calculus as to whether it will work or not, said Nina Jankowicz, a global fellow at the Wilson Center who studies the intersection of democracy and technology in Central and Eastern Europe.
”I don’t think any of this is a prudent plan from Russia. But it seems increasingly like Putin doesn’t care what’s a prudent plan or not,” Jankowicz said. ”He really just wants the U.S. and the West and its influence out of what he views as his sphere of influence. And if that means installing a puppet government in a country that I think is really going to put up quite a resistance—if not physically, then certainly in terms of an intellectual resistance—I think he has another one coming.”
Russia has killed 14,000 Ukrainians since it invaded Ukraine in 2014, according to the United Nations, and Putin’s plot exposes just how much Putin isn’t in touch with just how much hatred towards Russia has embedded itself in the fabric of everyday Ukrainian life since, said Taylor. If he invades, the resistance will just grow.
“In 2014… Russia invaded Ukraine and Ukrainian people concluded… Russia was an enemy,” Taylor told The Daily Beast. “There are a lot of monuments and memorials in a lot of small, Ukrainian towns and villages to soldiers who have died fighting the Russians in the east. This is deeply felt.”
Ukrainians are more likely than not to strongly resist the stooges Russia has chosen for the takeover, said Jankowicz.
“In some ways you could kind of view this announcement as [Britain] trying to shed light on how out of touch the Kremlin is,” Jankowicz said.