President Volodymyr Zelenskiy told journalists at a curated press conference in that Kyiv had information suggesting a coup d'état was being planned in the coming months involving the country’s top oligarch and Ukraine’s richest man Rinat Akhmetov, suggesting the plan was backed by Russia.
More details emerged over the weekend as journalists reached out to some of the people named by Zelenskiy.
Akhmetov owns System Capital Management (SCM) that includes DTEK, Ukraine’s biggest power company. He also released a statement calling the allegations an “absolute lie.”
“The information made public by Volodymyr Zelenskiy about attempts to draw me into some kind of coup is an absolute lie. I’m outraged by the spread of this lie, no matter what the President’s motives are. My position has been and will be explicit and definite: an independent, democratic, and united Ukraine with the Crimea and my home region, Donbas. My actions live up to my words. As a Ukrainian citizen, the country’s biggest investor, taxpayer, and employer, I will continue to defend a free Ukraine, a free economy, democracy, and freedom of speech. I will do everything I can to prevent authoritarianism and censorship in Ukraine.”
Akhmetov’s business was immediately hit by Zelenskiy’s comments with its foreign currency Eurobonds, which mature in 2027, falling sharply after the president’s comments that the businessman was being pulled into a Russian-backed coup attempt.
Zelenskiy told reporters that authorities had "not only intelligence, but also audio recordings" in which people from Russia and representatives of a media oligarch were planning an attempted coup.
“[According to the data], $1bn will be spent. [Akhmetov] is being pulled into a war against the Ukrainian state, and I believe that he has started it, and that will be a big mistake,” Zelenskiy said during a marathon press conference on November 26, as cited by the Kyiv Independent.
The Ukrainian president did not directly accuse the Russian government of involvement, and he also said it was possible that businessman and former parliamentarian Rinat Akhmetov was unaware of the discussions. Zelenskiy said that he would invite Akhmetov to listen to the recordings.
Long-time Ukraine reporter Christopher Miller talked to contacts in the president’s administration that had heard the tapes, which have not been released to the public yet, and described some of their content, Miller said in a series of tweets.
“The coup plot alleged by President Volodymyr Zelenskiy today was being planned by an FSB officer and three defectors of Ukraine's Interior Ministry who are based in Crimea, according to sources close to the Ukrainian leader who spoke with me this morning,” Miller tweeted.
“Zelenskiy said Ukraine had audio recordings that were evidence of the coup plot but hasn't released them. One of my sources read transcripts of the recordings to me over the phone. The source said Zelenskiy plans to turn over the evidence of the alleged plot to the US this weekend,” said Miller.
“I've not been able to authenticate the audio recording and transcripts myself. But one of my sources said Zelenskiy’s office vetted the intelligence over two days and "authenticated" the recordings yesterday,” said Miller. “Source close to Zelenskiy made clear the evidence Ukraine has does not show the direct involvement of oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, but that he is mentioned by the four alleged coup plotters who say they "need to be ready to move in and work with Akhmetov," according to the transcript.”
One of the sources named a Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) officer "running the show," as Vasyl Vasylovich Laptyev. He's allegedly working with Ukrainian defectors Oleksiy Vasylyev, Vasyl Hrytsak, Eduard Fedosov. All believed to be in Crimea, according to Miller.
“The specifics of the coup plot remain a bit unclear because I didn't hear the full transcript or original audio. But what I heard did not sound like a meticulous and well-thought-out plan. It amounted to destabilizing Ukraine from within, exploiting current tensions between Kyiv and Moscow, Zelenskiy and Akhmetov. It was going to use a protest planned on December1 as cover. The idea appears to have been to bring Akhmetov people into the fold. But unclear whether that had happened,” said Miller.
The threat of a coup provoked alarm in Europe as several top US and EU diplomats immediately called Zelenskiy’s office the same day to get more information about the evidence of the alleged coup plot.
“So why did Zelenskiy announce the alleged coup plot publicly and mention Akhmetov's name? Source close to the president said: "He's trying to declare a ceasefire," with the oligarch, with whom he's been tangling with while pushing thru anti-oligarch policies,” Miller said. “This appears to be the Vasyl Hrytsak who Zelenskiy’s office believes is involved, a former deputy head of Ukraine’s State Migration Service and once a top Interior Ministry official who fled Ukraine during the Euromaidan revolution in February 2014.”
However, the evidence of a coup remains very speculative. Ukrayinska Pravda reportedly spoke to Fedosov, who said he is in Kyiv and had nothing to do with the alleged coup that Zelenskiy spoke of and the president’s team said he was involved in, according to audio transcripts. Fedosov does say he’s spoken to the other Ukrainians named in the administration’s evidence, including one recently, but not about any coup, Ukrayinska Pravda reported.
Clash of the Titans
While the accusations fly and it remains unclear just how serious the threat of a coup is, there is no denying that the president is locked in a confrontation with Ukraine’s richest man.
“Akhmetov has been using his powerful media empire against Zelenskiy. Meanwhile, Zelenskiy has been using his governmental powers to go after Akhmetov’s businesses,” says Miller.
All of the oligarchs have come under pressure since Zelenskiy gave his oligarch speech in March and that was followed by an oligarch law in the summer where the state started to crack down on some of the money making scams run by oligarch groups, including those of Akhmetov.
Unhappy with the showdown the oligarchs have been pushing back and Akhmetov’s press has reportedly become much more critical of the president, who is watching his poll numbers fall in the run up to next year’s elections.
In particular the state has withheld payment it owes to DTEK Renewables for renewable power. Akhmetov’s companies account for about a quarter of all green power generated in Ukraine, but the state has been unable to pay running up almost a billion dollars of debt to the producers. IN November the state utilities company Ukrenergo issued a $825mn green Eurobond to raise funds to pay off the debt, but specifically excluded DTEK Renewables from the payout, which is owed $115mn, something which is illegal under Ukrainian law. All the other producers have been paid. DTEK Renewables has threatened to sue. More legislation that will specifically target Akhmetov’s businesses is in the works.
The rare 5-hour press conference raised eyebrows after the presidential administration handpicked 32 attendees, excluding many well known and respectable publications. Zelenskiy also used the press conference to launch a blistering attack on journalists reporting.
The president has been accused of being thin-skinned concerning coverage of his administration progress.
“Zelenskiy’s messages, tone, demeanor at carefully curated presser (his admin hand-picked media to attend) make him look like a leader growing increasingly paranoid; ‘everyone out to get me.’ Maybe some are. But this appearance doesn’t inspire confidence at especially tense moment,” Miller said.
Several times, the president’s temper got the better of him, and Zelensky turned to accusations against specific journalists, questioning their motives or complaining that they were infringing on his personal life, the newly established Kyiv Independent reported.
Zelenskiy has also been accused of having a political agenda after he shut down the media assets of his main political rival Viktor Medvedchuk, the head of the Political Council of the Opposition Platform, For Life Party, who is currently under house arrest and facing treason charges. Via his partners Medvedchuk also controlled several of the country’s biggest media outlets.
Likewise, pressure from the presidential administration on the owner of the widely respected English-language Kyiv Post has been suggested as a possible reason for its recent abrupt closure, reported Ukrainska Pravda, a leading investigative publication.
One point of note is that despite the stream of reports from US intelligence services in Washington reporting on Russia’s build up of troops on Ukraine’s borders, Zelenskiy brushed over the topic with few comments.
Zelenskiy claimed that the situation isn’t worse than in the spring, when Russia similarly amassed forces near the occupied Donbas and in Crimea, reports the Kyiv Independent. He also said the risk of Russia’s attack has always existed since its invasion of Ukraine in 2014. “We are in full control of our borders and are fully ready for any escalation,” he said.
Ukraine’s border guards launched a large-scale military exercise last week, but they went to the Belarusian border as a pre-emptive measure to prevent migrants from Belarus crossing into Ukraine, not to shore up defences on Ukraine’s eastern border with Russia.
Zelenskiy also commented on a sting operation to catch mercenaries that served Russia in the Donbas that was revealed on November 17 by a Bellingcat investigation. Zelenskiy said he knew about the operation but had not approved it. Previously Bankova claimed that there was no operation.
The Wagner operation was designed to intercept 33 Kremlin-backed mercenaries of the Wagner military company en route from Minsk to Istanbul in 2020. The operation went wrong when Belarus' president Alexander Lukashenko suddenly arrested the mercenaries, motivated by a row he was having with Moscow at the time.
Allegedly the operation was sunk by the fact that someone in Zelenskiy’s administration leaked the existence of the operation to Belarus or Russia, which prevented the capture of mercenaries who had fought against Ukraine on Russia’s side in the Donbas.
Zelenskiy said he had asked the then-head of military intelligence Vasyl Burba if passengers could be killed as a result, and Burba allegedly said “yes.” “I’m ready to approve any operations if they are thought through and if no people suffer,” Zelenskiy said as cited by Kyiv Independent.