Despite having more than 100,000 Russian troops massed near its border since last April, Ukraine’s perception of the Russian threat has been notably diverging from that of the US ever since the White House started ringing the alarm about the “imminent Russian invasion” last autumn. Ukraine’s National Security Council chief Oleksiy Danilov even conceded in a recent interview that he had tried to argue with the Washington Post, after its article triggered the invasion scare on October 30.
While downplaying the risk of a Russian offensive and even reprimanding the West for sowing panic, the Ukrainian leadership appears preoccupied with a different threat – that of a coup. Ukrainian officials have spoken about it on numerous occasions, starting with Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s memorable press conference at the end of November, when the Ukrainian president startled Western allies by largely ignoring the invasion scare and instead talking about the perceived threat emerging from within Ukraine.
The Western reaction to his claims at the time was a mixture of scepticism and disdain, especially as it undermined the Biden administration’s vocal campaign to convince the world that Putin was about to occupy Ukraine.
Later though, the US and Britain found a way of backing up Zelenskiy’s fear of a coup by releasing intelligence data alleging that Russia was plotting to overthrow the Ukrainian government with the help of its local proxies.
A whole range of different figures – from oligarchs to security agents – have featured as potential plotters in various statements and reports that have emerged in the past several months. However, several other key figures haven’t been mentioned, even though they have a far greater capacity for staging a coup-like event.
Many of the allegations can be safely dismissed as disinformation volleys fired in the fierce info-wars that accompany the struggle for power between political and oligarchic clans.
Post-Maidan Ukraine is ridden with well-armed and murky paramilitary groups freelancing for the oligarchs and closely linked to various factions in security bodies. It is control over one or several of these groups, characterised as volunteer battalions or nationalist movements, which defines the ability of an oligarch or a political leader to stage a coup framed as another Maidan revolution.
The latest person named as an alleged conspirator is Police Colonel Yury Goluban, who was arrested on January 30. Ukraine’s Interior Minister Denys Monastyrsky claimed that he was plotting to stage a violent protest outside the presidential office in Kyiv. He alleged Goluban may be linked to Donbas separatists and Russia.
Goluban is more than just a policeman. His life story has many features that make him similar to security agents who feature in criminal investigations. A version of Goluban’s biography – posted on the interior ministry’s website in 2017 when he won an award for heroism in the Donbas conflict – says that prior to the Maidan revolution, he served in the elite anti-terrorist units of various Ukrainian security agencies, including the Special Group Alpha of Ukraine’s State Security Service (SBU).
At the beginning of the war with Russia, he joined a volunteer battalion called Kyiv-1, headed by Yevhen Deydey – a gangster from the Odessa region, who prior to Maidan was convicted of armed robbery. The battalion emerged under the auspices of the then interior minister Arsen Avakov, whose son briefly joined its ranks.
But Oleksandr Khodakovsky, a prominent Donbas separatist commander, claimed that Goluban used to be one of his subordinates during the pro-Russian takeover of Donetsk. Khodakovsky is the former commander of Alpha in Donetsk.
Given how few details the Ukrainian law-enforcement bodies have released about Goluban’s alleged plot, it is impossible to verify accusations brought against him. Other than the minister’s claims, no evidence has been presented proving that the violent protest had really been planned.
The authorities also didn’t link Goluban to any of the prominent figures who featured as coup organisers in the previous allegations.
One of these figures is former MP and Nash TV channel owner Yevhen Murayev, who was accused by the British foreign ministry on January 23 of leading a pro-Russian coup conspiracy. British officials later conceded that this information was passed to them by US intelligence. This story was received with a great deal of scepticism by regional observers, not least because Ukraine didn’t move to prosecute Murayev, despite the British allegations.
Murayev rejected the accusations by saying that Moscow already had its chosen leader for Ukraine. He was talking about Putin’s long-time ally and family friend Viktor Medvedchuk. The latter is indeed a frequent guest in Moscow and in the Kremlin – unlike Murayev, who also happens to be on Ukraine's Russian sanctions list.
The two men are clearly of a different political calibre. Medvedchuk’s Opposition Bloc/For Life came second in the 2019 parliamentary election. It briefly became the country’s most popular party, according to opinion polls, at the end of 2020, just before President Zelenskiy unleashed an attack on Medvedchuk, putting him also on the sanctions list, together with three TV channels he was alleged to control via a proxy.
Murayev led the Opposition Bloc, a Russia-friendly party with a name very similar to Medvedchuk’s. In the 2019 election, it failed to enter parliament. Observers regarded it as a spoiler that effectively stole 3% of the vote from Medvedchuk.
It is difficult to comprehend why Russia would bet its stake on a fairly unpopular politician, when it has an ally who presides over a genuinely potent political force.
Curiously, no-one is currently naming Medvedchuk as a potential coup organiser, perhaps because he was effectively neutralised by Zelenskiy. On top of being slapped with extra-judicial sanctions, he is currently under house arrest on charges of treason and “aiding terrorists” in a case related to the smuggling of coal from Donbas.
A paramilitary force he was trying to build with the help of a splinter faction of the far-right Azov movement has also been destroyed by the combined forces of rival paramilitaries and law-enforcement bodies. It is safe to say that there is currently no potent paramilitary force on the pro-Russian flank of Ukrainian politics.
The most prominent personality featuring on the list of potential conspirators is Ukraine’s richest businessman Rinat Akhmetov. It was Zelenskiy himself who mentioned his name in connection with an alleged coup threat during his press conference in November.
The president didn’t directly accuse the oligarch of plotting a coup, but he claimed that some Russian agents had been trying to get him on board. Ukraine’s law enforcement bodies then released more details that were meant to back up the allegations. It turned out that they were based on tapped conversations between middle-ranking Russian security agents. These details didn’t make the story any more plausible. Akhmetov expressed outrage at the president linking him to this alleged plot.
But Zelenskiy had other reasons to suspect Akhmetov of planning to dislodge him, albeit by democratic means, rather than in a coup. Four days before Zelenskiy’s press conference, Akhmetov met with a group of major politicians and media personalities in Vilnius, ostensibly to celebrate the birthday of TV presenter Savik Shuster.
Apart from Ukraine’s richest man, guests at the party included former prime minister Volodymyr Groysman, Kyiv mayor’s brother Volodymyr Klitschko and – perhaps most notably – former interior minister Arsen Avakov, a political veteran who played an important role in setting up volunteer units at the start of the war in Donbas.
Apart from Goluban’s Kyiv-1, these units include Azov – a National Guard regiment which strongly overlaps with the namesake far-right movement, comprised of ultra-nationalists and outright neo-Nazis, including a few dozen fugitives from Russia.
Avakov is pretty unpopular in Ukraine, but his association with far-right paramilitaries makes him one of the most powerful figures in a country where political outcomes are sometimes decided in street battles and revolutions.
One of the country’s most prominent news outlets Ukrayinska Pravda reported, quoting anonymous sources, that the Vilnius meeting was focused on working out a joint strategy for the next parliamentary and presidential elections, due in 2023 and 2024 respectively. A powerful coalition like that could effectively challenge President Zelenskiy and his party, Servant of the People.
In the following weeks, Ukrainian law-enforcement bodies raided Akhmetov offices in what may eventually grow into a criminal case against the oligarch. Naturally, Akhmetov claims that this attack is politically motivated.
At the same press conference in November where Zelenskiy made his obscure allegations, the president also claimed he knew the date of the scheduled coup attempt – December 1 and 2.
There was indeed one protest scheduled during these dates, which did take place, but it led to no clashes or violence. It was organised by the Capitulation Resistance Movement, a radical street force dedicated to toppling Zelenskiy. Led by Andriy Levus, a former deputy chief of Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU), it is the reincarnation of another movement, the Free People, which itself stems from Ukraine’s Youth Nationalist Congress, an organisation set by the successors of Nazi collaborators who found refuge in North America after World War II.
Comprised of the members of Maidan’s self-defence and war veterans, the Capitulation Resistance Movement is a paramilitary force associated with the nationalist opposition that coalesced around former president Petro Poroshenko after he was soundly defeated by Zelenskiy in the 2019 election.
‘Capitulation’ stands for any form of compromise with Russia – be it over the peace settlement in Donbas or the ethno-nationalist legislation, discriminating against Russian-speakers, which was hastily adopted in the last months of Poroshenko’s presidency.
Levus was a prominent commander of Maidan Self Defence, which protected the protesters during the 2014 Revolution of Dignity. During his SBU stint at the start of the war in Donbas, he helped form volunteer units and sabotage groups. His political convictions are strongly influenced by the Ukrainian far-right Banderovite tradition, which is based on the conviction that history is made by ruthless individuals, not the static masses. When Zelenskiy defeated Poroshenko by a landslide in 2019, Levus wrote a post to the effect that the majority is inherently incapable of making correct political decisions and it is up to strong-willed individuals to fix its mistakes.
Levus’ force largely overlaps with the militant core of the Maidan revolution, but it is also close to the radical part of Ukraine’s security milieu, which attempted to impeach Zelenskiy in the so-called Wagnergate affair. With the head of Ukraine’s military intelligence, Vasyl Burba, on their side, they accused Zelenskiy of treason for cancelling an insanely audacious plan to capture a group of Russian mercenaries by force-landing a civilian Turkish airliner as it flew over Ukraine. The impeachment attempt failed and Zelenskiy fired Burba in September last year.
The clampdown continued in December, when Poroshenko was officially accused of treason in the same case as Putin’s ally Medvedchuk, for alleged involvement in the smuggling of coal from the part of Donbas controlled by Russian-backed forces. Poroshenko left Ukraine, but returned in January despite the threat of arrest. The Canadian daily Globe & Mail reported that the arrest was averted by an intervention from Canadian Foreign Minister Christya Freeland.
If all the above sounds confusing to you, then you can imagine how confused President Zelenskiy might be trying to figure out who is friend and who is foe in the Byzantine landscape of Ukrainian politics.
Since Russia is the aggressor, the natural instinct of all Ukrainian politicians is to try and label their rival as Russian stooges, as when Poroshenko – despite all of his nationalist credentials – is tied to Putin’s ally Medvedchuk.
But that doesn’t mean that President Zelenskiy necessarily sees the threat as emerging from Russia, especially now that Medvedchuk is neutralised. The fact that his government's line is now radically diverging from the White House’s “imminent invasion” narrative may reflect the doubts he might harbour about American intentions with regards to Ukraine and himself specifically.
Zelenskiy was clearly not America’s preferred choice in the 2019 election. His political rivals from Poroshenko’s camp remain the darlings of the DC blob. Meanwhile Akhmetov is one of the main sponsors of the Atlantic Council, the hawkish think-tank, which appears to have the greatest influence on Joe Biden’s Ukrainian policy. Ultra-nationalist paramilitary groups, which control the street in Ukrainian cities, enjoy a warm relationship with far-right Ukrainian diaspora organisations, which were nurtured by the CIA during the Cold War.
The part of Ukraine’s security community that tried to oust Zelenskiy in the Wagnergate affair also happens to be the country’s party of war. At the November press conference, Zelenskiy directly accused the main proponent of the Wagnergate affair, military commentator Vyacheslav Butusov, of trying to trigger hostilities in Donbas.
It was the ultranationalist paramilitaries who effectively derailed the first attempt by Zelenskiy to reach a compromise with Putin in 2019, when they demonstrated their ability to sabotage truce agreements achieved by the president, thus undermining Putin’s trust in Zelenskiy as a negotiating partner.
As Zelenskiy embarks on another attempt to negotiate peace with Russia, he is well aware that no matter what kind of compromise he might reach, his rivals will make an attempt at ousting him in a Maidan-like event. He has reasons to doubt whether America will stand by him at that moment.
Leonid Ragozin is an independent journalist based in Rīga. He covers Russian and Ukrainian politics for a variety of Western media outlets. He co-authored multiple editions of Lonely Planet Guides to Russia, Ukraine and other countries. He tweets at @leonidragozin.