Former Ukrainian prime minister Mykola Azarov has announced the formation of a "Ukraine Salvation Committee," calling for "total regime change" through early elections and vowing to "restore order in our home."
Azarov, who was former president Viktor Yanukovych's prime minister until the latter was toppled by "Euromaidan" protests in February 2014 and fled to Russia, spoke on August 3 at a news conference in Moscow and in an interview on state-run Rossia-24.
"The Salvation Committee believes it is impossible to restore accord in Ukraine without changing the country's political leadership," Azarov said. He called the pro-European protests that drove Yanukovych out a "coup," echoing the Kremlin's term.
It was the first formal proclamation by allies of Yanukovych of an effort to regain power from the country's pro-Western leaders - though Azarov said that the ousted president and other senior members of his circle would not be involved.
"The Salvation Committee is being created outside Ukraine, unfortunately, but I am sure that we will return," Azarov told the news conference. He said the committee would be ready to take "full responsibility for the situation in Ukraine in future."
"Our main task is total regime change - a renewal of the authorities," he said in the subsequent interview. "What is the mechanism of this total renewal? There is only one way: early elections of the president and all other branches of government, and an adoption of a new constitution."
'Folks, your time is up'
Azarov also said that peaceful protests in Ukraine were a "sign of no confidence in the regime.” “Through such actions people must tell the existing regime: 'Folks, your time is up; get out of there on your own.'"
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko was elected to a five-year term in May 2014, three months after Yanukovych fled following mounting pressure from protesters incensed by his decision to spurn a landmark trade and political deal with the European Union and draw closer to Russia instead.
Azarov named Volodymyr Oliynyk, a former lawmaker from Yanukovych's defunct Party of Regions, as the chairman of the newly established committee, and said that Oliynyk would be its choice for president.
Azarov, 67, served as prime minister under Yanukovych from 2010 to 2014. Both he and Yanukovych are wanted by Ukrainian authorities for crimes, among others, related to embezzlement and abuse of power, and an international warrant for Azarov's arrest has been issued by Interpol.
In April, Ukraine's Security Service named Azarov and Oliynyk among former officials who allegedly financially supported "acts to destabilize the situation in Ukraine."
Hinting at an undercover presence in Ukraine, Azarov said that he could not name all members of the newly established group because some of them are in Ukraine and it would be dangerous to disclose their names.
There was no immediate reaction from Poroshenko or his government, but Azarov's announcement is likely to be seen widely in Ukraine as a Russian-backed effort to take power.
Russia distances self
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov swiftly insisted this was not the case, saying that the Russian government "has nothing to do with this initiative."
Yanukovych's loss of power was part of a chain of events that has severely damaged Russia's relations with Ukraine and the West. Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014, after sending in troops and staging a secession referendum, and Kyiv's forces are battling Russian-backed separatists in a war that has killed more than 6,400 people in eastern Ukraine since April 2014.
Oliynyk, who also attended the press conference in Moscow, said that Ukraine must be a neutral country - a demand that Russia, which does not want its big mostly Slavic, Orthodox Christian neighbor to join NATO or the EU, has made repeatedly.
"We insist that nobody has a right to interfere into our internal affairs, not America, not Europe, not Russia. We are capable of making decisions ourselves," Oliynyk said.
RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service contributed to this report. Some material came from Interfax, TASS, and UNIAN.