Sitting in a blue armchair, vaping with one hand and making phone calls with the other, Yevhen Murayev, Ukrainian politician and backer of the Nash television station, spent last week desperately trying to save his career.
In recent weeks, his swanky television studios, housed in an industrial building not far from central Kyiv, have been picketed by groups of angry nationalists, and on Friday Ukraine’s security council imposed sanctions on the channel, effectively taking it off the air with immediate effect. He is not able to appeal against the decision.
The reason, Murayev believes, is Britain. An unusual statement released by the Foreign Office three weeks ago referenced unspecified intelligence purporting to show Russia was plotting a coup in Ukraine to install a puppet government in Kyiv.
“The former Ukrainian MP Yevhen Murayev is being considered as a potential candidate,” read the statement, released in time to make the front of the Sunday newspapers.
“It’s clear with the release of this statement that Britain decided it was going to be part of an information operation,” said Mark Galeotti, a Russia-focused political analyst.
British and US officials say that by releasing statements such as this one, they are letting Russia know they are aware of Moscow’s plans and making it harder for the Russians to implement them. The Murayev announcement, however, was greeted with confusion and chuckles in Kyiv, given his low popularity ratings in most parts of the country.
“It just didn’t sound right at all. This is not a government that could be imposed in Kyiv,” said a diplomatic source, adding that it would only make sense if Russia intended to divide the country and set up a regional government in the east.
Murayev said he was on holiday with his family on a tropical island when he began receiving calls from British journalists who wanted his comment about allegations he was the figurehead of a Russian coup. “At first I thought it was some kind of prank,” he said.
The Foreign Office statement named Murayev, as well as four other politicians who fled Ukraine after the 2014 Maidan revolution, including former prime minister Mykola Azarov, who has lived in Moscow ever since. Murayev said he had helped Azarov to escape from Ukraine in the heat of the revolution, driving him across the border to Russia, but since then has had no meaningful contact with him or the other men named.
“Since then we have just spoken occasionally by phone, usually to wish each other happy birthday,” Murayev said. He claimed he has not visited Russia since 2015 and has been under Russian sanctions since 2018 after falling out with Viktor Medvedchuk, another pro-Kremlin politician, who is a personal friend of Vladimir Putin.
“The British have publicly labelled me a collaborator, and now the Ukrainians are targeting me and there’s no public evidence,” he said.
Like with so much of the recent publicised intelligence, it is certainly plausible someone in Moscow may have tapped up Murayev, one of the few politicians in Ukraine who is friendly to the Russian position. But it is hard to know whether the statement was based on rock-solid information or informal contingency plans.
For Murayev, the biggest irritation was that he was named as someone who was “being considered”, but was not directly accused of anything. “How can I defend myself against the allegation when nobody has provided any evidence against me? I can’t even sue the British, because they phrased it very carefully. They haven’t directly accused me of being involved, just that some people may have been thinking of using me,” he said.
The crescendo of intelligence briefings declaring that a Russian invasion of Ukraine is imminent has mostly emanated from Washington in recent weeks, but Britain has emerged as the leading supporting voice, backing up US claims about the present danger.
The Foreign Office has stood firmly behind US messages that the threat of a full-scale invasion is real and may come at any time, even as other European capitals and the Ukrainian government have remained more sceptical.
This has been combined with a number of high-profile visits to Ukraine and Russia this month, starting with Boris Johnson’s visit to Kyiv to meet with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy and followed last week with two ministerial visits to Moscow. The first of them – foreign secretary Liz Truss’s trip on Thursday – did not go well. One politically connected source in Kyiv compared the spectacle of Truss going up against Russia’s wily and experienced foreign minister Sergei Lavrov to “Champions League meets Sunday league”.
A bad-tempered meeting ended with an acrimonious press conference and the Russian side commenting on a gaffe Truss had made during talks. Reportedly, as Truss noted the ominous Russian military buildup close to the Ukrainian border, Lavrov asked her whether Britain recognised Moscow’s sovereignty over the Rostov and Voronezh regions, where much of the buildup is taking place.
Truss allegedly told Lavrov that Britain would “never” do so, before the British ambassador intervened to gently mention to Truss that these regions were in fact inside Russia. Before long, news of the geographical slip-up was being gleefully reported across Russian and international media. Truss seemed to confirm the reports when she said in an interview with a Russian newspaper that she had thought Lavrov was talking about regions of Ukraine.
Truss returned to London with little sign she had made any progress either on divining Russia’s intentions or on delivering a useful message to Moscow. “I honestly have no idea why she went to Russia, except for the photo op,” said Galeotti.
On Friday, the defence secretary, Ben Wallace, met his Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu, a key member of Putin’s inner circle who rarely meets western ministers. Wallace described the talks as “frank and constructive”, and the visit lacked the adversarial jockeying of the Truss trip.
In addition to the visits to Kyiv and Moscow, Britain has been more forthright providing weapons to the Ukrainian army than many European countries, and there has been gratitude in Kyiv for Britain’s forceful stance.
But the intelligence briefings have not been as well received. “The majority of people in Ukraine took the British statement with enormous scepticism,” said Volodymyr Fesenko, a Kyiv-based political analyst. He suggested a popular theory was that the information may have been leaked to the British by personal enemies of Murayev. “I think the British may have been played,” Fesenko said.