Russia's Foreign Ministry has dismissed Britain's claim that Moscow is looking to install a pro-Russian leader in Ukraine amid mounting concern over a Russian military buildup near its border with Ukraine.
The British Foreign Office said on January 22 that it had information the Russian government is considering former Ukrainian parliament member Yevhen Murayev as a potential candidate while it decides "whether to invade and occupy Ukraine."
The ministry did not provide evidence to back its accusations, which included naming several other Ukrainian politicians it said had links with Russian intelligence services.
The Russian Foreign Ministry on January 23 described the British claims as "disinformation" and another example of NATO members "escalating tensions around Ukraine."
"We urge the British Foreign Ministry to stop provocative activities," the ministry said in a statement on Facebook.
"The information being released today shines a light on the extent of Russian activity designed to subvert Ukraine, and is an insight into Kremlin thinking," Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said in a statement alongside the intelligence assessment.
"As the U.K. and our partners have said repeatedly, any Russian military incursion into Ukraine would be a massive strategic mistake with severe costs," she added.
"There'll be very serious consequences if Russia takes this move to try and invade but also install a puppet regime," British Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab said in a January 23 interview with Sky News.
The British statement claimed there were "numerous" former Ukrainian politicians with ties to Russian intelligence and who had served under former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.
The pro-Kremlin Yanukovych was ousted in 2014 amid popular protests that led to a pro-Western government taking control in Kyiv.
Among those alleged to have ties to Russian intelligence are Serhiy Arbuzov, who was first deputy prime minister from 2012 to 2014 and acting prime minister in 2014; Andriy Kluyev, first deputy prime minister from 2010 to 2012 and chief of staff to Yanukovych; Volodymyr Sivkovich, former deputy head of the National Security and Defense Council (RNBO); and Mykola Azarov, prime minister of Ukraine from 2010 to 2014.
The United States finds the allegation that Moscow intends to install a pro-Russian leader in Ukraine "deeply concerning," a statement from National Security Council spokeswoman Emily Horne said.
"This kind of plotting is deeply concerning. The Ukrainian people have the sovereign right to determine their own future, and we stand with our democratically elected partners in Ukraine," Horne said.
Some analysts questioned the British claims, pointing to Murayev being a marginal figure who himself is under Russian sanctions. He is also not close to Viktor Medvedchuk, the Kremlin's most prominent ally in Ukraine who was put under house arrest last year in a treason case.
In a Facebook post, Murayev dismissed the British claims.
"The time of pro-Western and pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine is over," he wrote on January 24.
"I appeal to everyone who is invested in Ukraine's fate: stop dividing us into categories -- into pro-Russian and pro-Western -- stop putting us head to head against each other and we will build peace in our country ourselves," the post continued.
Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian security policy, said on Twitter he had doubts about the British claims.
"We have seen way too many assertions, airily backed by claims of intel, disappear or be disproved in recent years," he wrote. "The Russians -- like everyone else -- plan for multiple contingencies. They don't know what will happen next."
Various Russian intelligence agencies and centers of power have "all kinds of rival and speculative schemes," but "this is not in itself evidence of any coherent Kremlin plot and specific intent, let alone an associated and definite intent to take over the whole country through invasion and setting up a puppet government," he said.
Russia has amassed more than 100,000 troops in occupied Crimea and near Ukraine's borders, raising alarm bells in Western capitals that it is preparing further military action against Ukraine.
Moscow is backing separatist fighters in an ongoing war in eastern Ukraine that has claimed more than 13,200 lives since 2014, the same year it illegally annexed Crimea. Russia denies planning an invasion.
The British claims come a day after the top U.S. and Russian diplomats failed to make a major breakthrough in talks to resolve the crisis over Ukraine, although they agreed to keep talking.
Russia has ramped up its belligerent rhetoric recently as it presses for a list of security guarantees. The demands include a promise from NATO never to admit Ukraine and for a significant retreat of the alliance from Eastern Europe. Moscow is also angered over Western military support to Ukraine.
The West has repeated it wants diplomacy, but with positions entrenched on both sides, successive talks between Western and Russian officials in Geneva, Brussels, and Vienna this month failed to yield any breakthrough.
Meanwhile, European and Russian media reported Truss would visit Moscow in February for talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to discuss the crisis along the Russian-Ukrainian border.
Truss's proposed visit would be the first by a British foreign secretary to Moscow since December 2017.
The AFP news agency earlier on January 22 quoted a "senior U.K. defense source" as saying Defense Secretary Ben Wallace had invited Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to hold talks about the Ukraine tensions.