Britain on Saturday accused the Kremlin of seeking to install a pro-Russian leader in Ukraine and said Russian intelligence officers had been in contact with several former Ukrainian politicians as part of plans for an invasion.
The British foreign ministry declined to provide evidence to back its accusations, which came at a time of high tension between Russia and the West over Russia's massing of troops near its border with Ukraine. Moscow has insisted it has no plans to invade.
The British ministry said it had information the Russian government was considering former Ukrainian lawmaker Yevheniy Murayev as a potential candidate to head a pro-Russian leadership.
'Deeply concerning,' US says
"We will not tolerate Kremlin plot to install pro-Russian leadership in Ukraine," British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said on Twitter. "The Kremlin knows a military incursion would be a massive strategic mistake & the UK and our partners would impose a severe cost on Russia."
Russia’s foreign ministry rejected the British statement, was released in early Sunday, Moscow and Kyiv time, calling it “disinformation.”
"Disinformation circulated by @FCDOGovUK is yet another indication that it is the @NATO Members led by the Anglo-Saxon nations who are escalating tensions around #Ukraine," the ministry said in a tweet.
A foreign ministry source said it was not the usual practice to share intelligence matters, and the details had only been declassified after careful consideration to deter Russian aggression.
"This kind of plotting is deeply concerning,” U.S. National Security Council spokesperson Emily Horne said in a statement. “The Ukrainian people have the sovereign right to determine their own future, and we stand with our democratically elected partners in Ukraine."
Murayev, 45, is a pro-Russian politician who opposes Ukraine's integration with the West. According to a poll by the Razumkov’s Centre think tank conducted in December 2021, he was ranked seventh among candidates for the 2024 presidential election with 6.3% support.
"You’ve made my evening. The British Foreign Office seems confused," Murayev told Britain's Observer newspaper. "It isn’t very logical. I’m banned from Russia. Not only that but money from my father’s firm there has been confiscated."
Britain, which this week supplied 2,000 missiles and a team of military trainers to Ukraine, also said it had information that Russian intelligence services were maintaining links with "numerous" former Ukrainian politicians, including senior figures with links to ex-President Viktor Yanukovich.
Yanukovich fled to Russia in 2014 after three months of protests against his rule and was sentenced in absentia to 13 years in jail on treason charges in 2019.
"Some of these [former Ukrainian politicians] have contact with Russian intelligence officers currently involved in the planning for an attack on Ukraine," the British foreign office statement said.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Downing Street office also said the British leader was planning to ramp up pressure on Russia this week by calling for European counterparts to come together with the United States to face down Russian aggression.
Earlier, RIA news agency reported that Truss would visit Moscow in February to meet her Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov, while Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and his British counterpart Ben Wallace have also agreed to hold talks.