“The Russian Government is looking to install a pro-Russian leader in Kyiv as it considers whether to invade and occupy Ukraine,” the UK Foreign Office said in a statement released on Saturday, January 22. The British authorities pointed to former Ukrainian lawmaker Yevhen Murayev as a “potential candidate,” while also claiming to “have information that the Russian intelligence services maintain links with numerous former Ukrainian politicians.” Commenting on this information, UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab warned that there would be serious consequences should Russia try and invade Ukraine and install a puppet government. However, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken declined to comment on the British intelligence report. In turn, Yevhen Murayev himself vehemently dismissed the allegations as “nonsense and stupidity.” Meduza examines what is known about Murayev and the other former Ukrainian politicians the UK Foreign Office named.
Meet Yevhen Murayev
Yevhen Murayev, age 45, hails from Ukraine’s Kharkiv region. He began his career in government in 2006, when he became a member of the Kharkiv Regional Council. Four years later, then-President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych appointed Murayev as the head of the Zmiiv Raion administration (a district in the Kharkiv region). In 2012, Murayev was elected to the Ukrainian parliament as a member of the pro-Russian Party of Regions, the ruling party during Viktor Yanukovych’s presidency.
After Yanukovych was ousted during the 2014 Maidan Revolution, Murayev remained a parliamentary deputy on the ticket of another pro-Russian party, the Opposition Bloc. Murayev did a stint with yet another pro-Russian party, Za Zhyttia (“For Life”), from 2016 until 2018. He then created his own political party, Nashi (“Ours”), which advocates for a broad decentralization of Ukraine.
On top of being a politician, Murayev is the former owner of the television channel NewsOne, “the most successful information channel in Ukraine,” according to Nashi’s website. Murayev owned the popular network from 2014 until 2018, when it came under the ownership of Taras Kozak — a Ukrainian lawmaker closely linked to pro-Kremlin politician and oligarch Viktor Medvedchuk, a close personal friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin. NewsOne was taken off the air in February 2021, after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky imposed sanctions against Taras Kozak and shut down his television channels. (Medvedchuk and Kozak were later charged with treason.)
In 2018, Murayev created another television channel, NASH, which broadcasts on cable and satellite networks. (The independent newspaper Ukrayinska Pravda describes NASH as a “propaganda” channel.)
Murayev is known for making pro-Russian statements. In recent years, he has provoked scandals in Ukraine by calling the Euromaidan Revolution a “coup d’état” and the conflict in the Donbas a “civil war” (echoing narratives commonly heard from Kremlin officials and on Russian state television). In June 2018, he said that Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov — who was a political prisoner in Russia at the time — was “a terrorist for one part of the population,” alleging that he “prepared arsons and explosions.” Following the allegations, the Ukrainian Prosecutor General’s Office opened a criminal case against Murayev on treason charges. The case was later handed over to Ukraine’s Security Service (the SBU), but the results of the investigation were never announced.
In 2019, Murayev entered Ukraine’s presidential race, only to withdraw in favor of politician Oleksandr Vikul. Murayev also ran in the 2019 parliamentary elections, but failed to overcome the five percent election barrier.
‘Stupidity and nonsense’
Speaking to journalists over the weekend, Yevhen Murayev called the UK Foreign Office’s statement about his links to Russia “some kind of stupidity.” As he pointed out, he has been under Russian sanctions since 2018 — this, he claims, is “because of a conflict with Medvedchuk.”
“I’ve been banned from entering Russia for four years now. If I had assets in Russia, they would be frozen, although I never had anything there,” Murayev told Ukrayinska Pravda, underscoring that his political program doesn’t align with Russia’s interests. “We have a different vision of the country’s [Ukraine’s] development. Ukraine must be a strong and sovereign state. So it’s difficult to imagine that I had some kind of communication with the Russians,” he said.
“I think that the information that we now see is unprofessionalism [sic]. Therefore, I hope for an apology,” the politician added.
In an interview with The Telegraph, Murayev said that he was “amused” by the UK’s accusations. “I have a hard time digesting stupidity and nonsense: Maybe someone wants to shut down yet another independent TV channel,” he mused.
“As someone who has been under Russian sanctions for four years, barred from Russia as a national security threat and whose father got his assets frozen in Russia, I find it hard to comment on the Foreign Office’s statement,” Murayev told The Telegraph.
A few hours before the UK Foreign Office released its statement on Saturday, Murayev posted a Facebook photo of himself as James Bond. The next day, he published a post arguing that “Ukraine needs new politicians, whose policies will be based exclusively on the principles of the national interests of Ukraine and the Ukrainian people.”
In another interview, this time with The Independent, Murayev said that he plans to take legal action against the British authorities, because the Foreign Office’s allegations led to him and his family being inundated with hundreds of threats on social media. He also said that he had learned of the accusations against him the day before the Foreign Office published its statement (January 21), but had dismissed the information as unreliable.
In addition naming Yevhen Murayev as the Kremlin’s “potential candidate” for puppet leader of Ukraine, the British Foreign Office listed four former Ukrainian politicians with whom the Russian intelligence services “maintain links”:
Mykola Azarov, Ukraine’s prime minister from 2010–2014, under ex-President Viktor Yanukovych;Serhiy Arbuzov, Ukraine’s first deputy prime minister from 2012–2014, and acting prime minister in 2014;Andriy Kluyev, first deputy prime minister from 2010–2012 and chief of staff to ex-President Yanukovych;Vladimir Sivkovich, former deputy head of the Ukrainian National Security and Defence Council (NSDC).
Following the change of government in 2014, Mykola Azarov — like many former high-ranking officials — was placed on a wanted list on suspicion of embezzling public funds. He fled Ukraine for Austria and, in February 2016, claimed to be living in Russia.
Azarov declined to comment on the UK’s allegation about his links to the Russian intelligence services, dismissing it as “nonsense.”
Serhiy Arbuzov took over as acting prime minister of Ukraine after Azarov fled the country in 2014. He himself fled a month later and settled in Moscow. The European Union has since imposed sanctions on Arbuzov. He is also wanted for embezzlement.
Andriy Kluyev, the former chief of staff to Yanukovych, was also charged with embezzlement following the Maidan Revolution. According to Ukrainian media reports, Kluyev left Ukraine for Russia, as well. Kluyev is also under EU sanctions.
Vladimir Sivkovich was suspended from his post as deputy head of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council after the crackdown on the Euromaidan protests in November 2013. Sivkovich was suspected of abuse of power and authority, but the charges against him were dropped. He finally left the NSDC in February 2014. According to Ukrayinska Pravda, Sivkovich also fled Ukraine after the revolution.
In January 2022, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on Vladimir Sivkovich, along with another former Ukrainian official, Volodymyr Oliynyk, and two sitting Ukrainian lawmakers, Taras Kozak and Oleh Voloshyn. In its press release, the Treasury Department referred to the four Ukrainian nationals as “FSB pawns,” alleging that they were responsible for carrying out “Russian government-directed influence activities to destabilize Ukraine.”
Kyiv and Moscow respond
The Russian Foreign Ministry reacted to the statement from the UK Foreign Office almost immediately, dismissing the information as “fake” in posts on social media. “The disinformation spread by the British Foreign Office is yet another evidence that it’s NATO countries […] who are escalating tensions around Ukraine,” the ministry said.
The Russian Embassy in London called the Foreign Office’s statement about Murayev “comical” (recalling that he is under Russian sanctions), and urged the British authorities “to stop the stupid rhetorical provocations, [which are] quite dangerous in the current heated situation.” “Sidelined by its short-sighted policy from the real diplomatic processes, Britain sees its role in constantly stoking anti-Russian sentiments,” the embassy claimed in a statement.
In an interview on the state-owned television channel Russia-1, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova denounced the UK’s statement as a “false story.” She also claimed that the press release was issued late in the evening (10:30 p.m. London time, 1:30 a.m. Moscow time) in the hopes that the Russian authorities wouldn’t react. Zakharova called the UK Foreign Ministry’s actions “malicious information aggression,” according to Russian state news agency TASS.
Speaking to Sky News, Ukraine’s Ambassador to the UK, Vadym Prystaiko, pointed to Murayev’s public appearances on his television channel and history of expressing pro-Russian views. “He’s trying to appeal to Ukrainians who still believe that the Soviet Union and Russia is the best way for Ukraine to develop,” Prystaiko said.
In turn, Mykhailo Podolyak, an advisor to Zelensky’s chief of staff, told BBC News Ukraine that the reports from the British Foreign Office were nothing new. “They didn’t say anything that Ukrainians themselves didn’t [already] understand about part of the political spectrum in Ukraine,” he said.
Podolyak added that since the war began in 2014, “the Russian leadership has taken advantage of some albeit marginal, but still existing political and public structures [and] figures [in Ukraine].”
Commenting on the Russian sanctions against Yevhen Murayev, Podolyak claimed that the restrictions were “obviously imposed not because Murayev is in favor of Ukraine’s independence but because, without permission, he competed with Medvedchuk for the opportunity to promote Russian interests.”
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Abridged translation by Eilish Hart