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'Potential Candidate' For Russia-Installed Leader In Kyiv? What Britain Says And What Murayev Has Said

Ukrainian politician Yevhen Murayev has been identified by Britain as a “potential candidate” for Moscow, which London says “is looking to install a pro-Russian leader in Kyiv.” (file photo)

With more than 100,000 Russian troops amassed near Ukraine’s borders triggering fears of a new invasion and stoking global tensions, Britain made additional waves this weekend with a claim that Moscow is plotting to set up a puppet regime.

Citing intelligence, the British Foreign Office said it had information indicating that Moscow “is looking to install a pro-Russian leader in Kyiv as it considers whether to invade and occupy Ukraine.”

Yevhen Murayev, a former member of the Ukrainian parliament who heads a Moscow-friendly political party and controls a TV channel, “is being considered as a potential candidate,” the Foreign Office said.

The Russian Foreign Ministry described the British claim as "disinformation,” and Murayev told the Associated Press that it was “baseless” and “absurd.”

Murayev said he has been denied entry to Russia since 2018 after being deemed a security threat, a restriction he suggested was politically motivated and precipitated by his falling out with Viktor Medvedchuk, a businessman and lawmaker in Ukraine who is close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

However, Murayev has made a number of remarks that echo Kremlin narratives about Ukraine. Here is a look at his career and some of his comments about developments that have unfolded since 2014, when Moscow-aligned President Viktor Yanukovych was pushed from power by the Maidan protests and Russia responded by seizing Crimea and backing separatist forces in the Donbas.

Who He Is

Murayev, 45, launched his political career in his native city of Kharkiv, where he was an ally of Yanukovych, who fled to Russia as pro-Western leaders came to the fore following the peak of the Maidan protests in February 2014.

From 2014 to 2019, Murayev was a member of the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, first with the Opposition Bloc, which arose from the ashes of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions. He founded his own party, For Life, in 2016.

A billboard of Yevhen Murayev defaced with dark red paint in the western Ukrainian city of Ternopil in October 2018.
A billboard of Yevhen Murayev defaced with dark red paint in the western Ukrainian city of Ternopil in October 2018.

In 2018 he created another party, Nashi, whose name means “Ours” and echoes that of a prominent former Russian youth group that supported President Vladimir Putin. The party currently has no seats in parliament.

Murayev is less visible than Medvedchuk, who says Putin is the godfather of his daughter and who has been under house arrest since May 2021 in a treason case that Moscow contends is politically motivated. But he has a lever to wield influence through his TV channel, Nash, which began broadcasting in November 2018 and is officially owned by his father.

Murayev registered as a presidential candidate in 2019 but withdrew before the election that brought President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to power. A December 2021 poll by the Kyiv-based Razumkov Center ranked him seventh among prospective candidates for the next presidential election, due in 2024, with 6.3 percent support.

What He's Said

Murayev has asserted that the government that emerged after the Maidan protests and Yanukovych’s downfall was illegitimate -- a claim that Putin and his government have made repeatedly, without evidence, and that seems to underpin Russia’s current approach to Ukraine.

"We put in power people who would never have come to it in a democratic way,” Murayev said in a January 1 interview with Nash, the channel he controls.

Echoing other claims that the Kremlin has made without evidence, Murayev suggested in 2021 that Zelenskiy was controlled by the West and that Ukraine might try to regain the territory held by the Russia-backed separatists in the Donbas by force. Kyiv denies any such plan, and Western governments have warned that Russia may use a false claim of a Ukrainian offensive as a pretext for a military escalation.

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"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 Donbas, which would lead to a full-scale war," Murayev said, according to Reuters.

He has criticized Western-backed institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and suggested that Westerners with roles in Ukrainian businesses seek to undermine Ukraine.

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“We have not ruled our country for a long time. You know that all the [economic] reforms are dictated by the IMF and that all the supervisory boards are made up of foreigners. All strategic enterprises are managed, and all are showing losses, although before the arrival of these supervisors, they were all profitable enterprises,” Murayev said in the January 1 interview with Nash.

NATO -- whose open-door policy is at the heart of the current confrontation between Russia and the West, with Moscow demanding the alliance agree to a binding pledge never to admit Ukraine or other new members -- has also been in the crosshairs of comments from Murayev.

“I believe the continent should be united and believe it will happen one day. We see, whether we like it or not, how Russia and China are drawing closer. It’s impossible to exclude Europe from that context,” he said in the interview. “Europe has been occupied since [1945] by allied powers: Britain and the United States. Our parents and grandparents created the Warsaw Pact, and it withdrew after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but the [NATO] bases remain there.”

And, like Putin and his government, Murayev has suggested that Kyiv is to blame for the current tension between Russia and Ukraine.

“The Ukrainian government does not want peace,” he said in the January 1 interview, without presenting evidence. “Whatever they say -- that Putin does not want [peace], that he’ll attack tomorrow -- peace does not serve the interest of the Ukrainian authorities. Because it means they will have to take responsibility for what is happening, and society will know how it all happened. People will return to politics to change the system, and a new balance will arise. But they want to dominate and constantly look to prolong their grip on power. But changes are coming, they are inevitable. So, to be honest, I’m in good spirits and looking forward to this year.”

Written by Tony Wesolowsky based on reporting by Maryan Kushnir of RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service.
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    Maryan Kushnir

    Maryan Kushnir has worked as a correspondent for RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service in Kyiv since 2015. He has extensive experience covering breaking news, including the conflict in eastern Ukraine. His footage from the front lines has been picked up by many international TV outlets. He has also extensively covered the COVID-19 pandemic, including reporting from within the country's intensive care units.