KYIV (Reuters) - Britain has accused the Kremlin of wanting to install a pro-Russian leader in Ukraine, and said Russian intelligence officers had been in contact with former Ukrainian politicians as part of plans for a military offensive.
Britain's foreign ministry said Russia was considering the Ukrainian politician Yevhen Murayev to lead a new government, in comments that Russia has denied. Murayev also poured cold water on the claim in comments to the Observer newspaper.
WHO IS YEVHEN MURAYEV?
Born in the eastern city of Kharkiv near the Russian border in 1976, Murayev is part of a group of politicians in opposition to the pro-Western leadership that took power after the 2014 Maidan street protests.
He began his political career in Kharkiv as an ally of the former President Viktor Yanukovich, who fled to Russia after the Maidan uprising.
In 2014-2019, Murayev was a lawmaker. He started in the Opposition Bloc faction, a party formed from fragments of the Moscow-backed Yanukovich's Party of Regions. But in June 2016 he distanced himself from Opposition Bloc and founded his own party For Life, with a similar ideology.
In 2018, he launched another party called Nashi. Murayev registered as a presidential candidate in the 2019 elections, but withdrew his candidacy before the vote.
WHAT ARE MURAYEV'S POLITICAL VIEWS?
Murayev has promoted views that closely align with Russian narratives on Ukraine. He considered the Maidan protests a Western-backed coup d'etat.
Last year, he referred to the war in Ukraine's eastern Donbass region as an internal conflict between the government and rebels, counter to Ukraine and the West's view that the conflict is between Ukraine and Russian-backed proxies.
In 2021, he said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy was controlled by the West and suggested, as Russia has, that Ukraine might try to regain territory held by Russian-backed separatists by force. Kyiv denies any such plan.
"Zelenskiy is a hostage and he is being blackmailed by MI6, the CIA, anyone. Tomorrow they can force him to launch an offensive against the Donbass, which will lead to a full-scale war," he said.
Drawing Russia into an escalation "will mean the death of thousands of Ukrainians on one side and the other of the line of demarcation."
HOW MUCH INFLUENCE DOES MURAYEV HAVE?
Murayev is less prominent than Viktor Medvedchuk, a pro-Moscow businessman and lawmaker who says Russian President Vladimir Putin is godfather to his daughter and who was thrown under house arrest last year in a treason case.
Murayev nevertheless holds sway through his TV channel, called Nash, which began broadcasting in November 2018 and is officially owned by his father, Volodymyr.
According to a poll by the Razumkov Centre think tank in December 2021, Murayev ranked seventh with 6.3% support among prospective candidates in the next presidential election in 2024. Another poll by the Rating group put him in fifth place.
In 2017 he filed an asset declaration, a mandatory requirement as a lawmaker. He declared cash assets of $2 million, 1 million euros ($1.13 million) and 13 million hryvnias ($460,971).
WHAT DO MURAYEV AND OTHERS SAY ABOUT BRITAIN'S ACCUSATIONS?
Murayev rubbished Britain's claim, telling the Observer newspaper that the accusation "isn't very logical". He promised more comments in a Facebook post, accompanied by a photoshopped image of him mocked up as James Bond.
In a later post, he called for an end to dividing Ukraine into pro-Western and pro-Russian politicians, and said the country needed new leaders.
Russia dismissed Britain's accusation as "disinformation". Ukraine's government had no immediate comment.
Volodymyr Fesenko, a Ukrainian political analyst, found Murayev an odd candidate.
"Murayev, for all his pro-Russianness, is not a figure who is very close to the Kremlin, especially compared to Medvedchuk," Fesenko wrote.
($1 = 28.2013 hryvnias)
($1 = 0.8818 euros)
(Writing by Matthias Williams; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)