Britain’s Deputy PM, Dominic Rabb, might have made the waters murkier with his statement on Sunday to the effect that the Kremlin is seeking to install a pro-Russian leader in Kiev. And should the plan materialize, severe economic sanctions will be imposed on Russia. “There will be very serious consequences if Russia takes this move to try and invade but also install a puppet regime,” Mr Rabb told Sky News on Sunday.
Fairly predictably, Britain’s comments were greeted as “disinformation” by the Russian foreign ministry, which has accused Britain and Nato of escalating tensions over Ukraine. Arguably, the war of words has preceded the clash of shields, if at all. Nykhailo Posolyak, a Ukranian adviser to the presidential office, said the allegations ought to be taken seriously. Indeed, the British accusation, has been articulated by the foreign ministry at a time of ballooning tensions between Russia and the West over the massing of Russian troops near its border with Ukraine.
According to the foreign ministry, the Russian government is considering the former Ukranian lawmaker, Yevhen Murayev, as the potential head of a pro-Russian leadership. Markedly, he has called for an end to dividing Ukraine into pro-Russian and proWestern politicians. “Ukraine needs politicians whose policy will be based solely on the national interests of Ukraine and its people,” he said. Murayev has been referred to as “too ridiculous a figure” to be the Kremlin’s pick to lead Ukraine. But Russia has propped up minor figures in leadership positions in annexed Crimea and separatist-held Donbass.
The Kremlin may appear to be proceeding from conclusion to premise, but Monday’s photo of Russian armored vehicles along a highway in Crimea are indeed suggestive of a calibrated troop build-up. Not wholly unrelated is the fact that the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, has rebuffed calls to immediately impose economic sanctions on Russia, saying that doing so would undercut the West’s ability to deter a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine. The Kremlin’s massing of troops near its border with Ukraine has sparked Western tensions.
Blinken said that if “one more” Russian force entered Ukraine in an aggressive manner, that would trigger what he called a “significant response”. British officials say its release of “sensitive intelligence” was calculated to foil a potential plot and to send a message to the likes of Vladimir Putin. Mr Dabb’s disclosure was described as part of a “concerted strategy to be a muscular player in Europe’s showdown with Russia” ~ a role it has played ever since Winston Churchill warned of an “Iron Curtain” after World War II.
For all that, there is little doubt that Whitehall’s gambit bears the imprint of a country that is eager to set itself apart, close to three years after it left the European Union. It is hard not to wonder whether Britain is anxious to define itself as an “independent middle power”. Small wonder the timing has been described as theatrical to match the cloakand-dagger nature of the disclosure.