While Oleg Tsaryov said he spent last weekend in the Crimean foothills searching for his lost dog, western intelligence assessed the former Ukrainian lawmaker could be lined up for something more sinister: heading up a Kremlin plot to lead a puppet government in Kyiv in the event of a Russian invasion.
Moscow “might position Oleg Tsaryov, and others, in leadership roles as part of this effort”, a western intelligence official told the Financial Times at the weekend.
Tsaryov’s name as Putin’s possible choice to lead regime change in Ukraine came from US intelligence, which made it available to the Five Eyes intelligence alliance made up of the US, UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, according to the official who requested anonymity.
The warning is the latest in a series of detailed intelligence disclosures from the US and its European allies over Russian president Vladimir Putin’s intentions to crush Ukraine’s army and install a pro-Moscow government.
But the western claims have struck people in Russian and Ukrainian political circles as alternately chilling and far-fetched — not least of all Tsaryov, who abandoned his political career in 2015 and now runs three Soviet-style wellness clinics on the Black Sea.
“This is a pretty funny situation,” Tsaryov told the Financial Times by telephone on Monday. “Look at me. I’m not even invited to speak on [Russian] state TV because I’m not important enough. I’m a sanatorium director in Yalta.”
The US and its allies have become increasingly vocal in their attempts to outflank Putin in the battle for global public opinion over Russia’s threat to Ukraine — and to try to deter him from launching another attack on its territory.
In January the US alleged that exiled allies of Viktor Medvedchuk, a pro-Moscow politician who counts Putin as godfather to one of his daughters, were on a Russian shortlist to rule Ukraine.
The UK then said Yevhen Murayev, a former MP who runs a Russian-language TV channel in Ukraine that authorities banned over the weekend, was being considered to lead the puppet government.
The Kremlin and Murayev dismissed the accusations. Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, did not respond to a request for comment about the alleged plans to install Tsaryov.
Analysts said Tsaryov made even less sense than the previous names floated by US and UK intelligence — raising questions over the west’s quality of insight into the Kremlin’s plans for Ukraine or Moscow’s difficulty to find credible candidates to install as Kyiv’s leader.
“Tsaryov is a discredited clown. He and Murayev are toxic anti-Ukrainian politicians. Their only support in Ukraine is at the point of a gun barrel,” said Brian Mefford, a US political consultant based in Ukraine.
Mefford said he believed the US was “preemptively releasing intelligence in real time in order to both warn Ukrainians as well as shock the Ukrainian people into a realisation just how bad the situation really is”.
A native of Dnipro in eastern Ukraine, Tsaryov served in the pro-Moscow Party of Regions led by Viktor Yanukovych, who fled to Russia in 2014 following a pro-western revolution.
After Russia’s annexation of Crimea the same year and the beginning of a Moscow-backed separatist conflict in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, Tsaryov ran for president on a pro-Russian ticket that was so unpopular he was chased out of a Kyiv TV studio and beaten up by an angry mob.
“They ripped all my clothes off. I was totally naked,” the 51-year-old said. He fled to the Donbas, where he headed up a prospective lawmaking body dubbed the “parliament of Novorossia” to unite the two Russian-backed separatist statelets in a manner styled after the European parliament.
He moved to Crimea after Ukraine charged him with supporting the separatists in 2015. There was “obviously barely any chance” of him leading a coup, Tsaryov said.
The disclosure of western intelligence about Putin’s plans towards Ukraine has intensified even as officials in Kyiv have rebuked it as too strident and even counterproductive. Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, said on Saturday that there was “too much information in the information space”.
But officials in US President Joe Biden’s administration have defended the strategy on the grounds that they do not want Putin to create a justification for the conflict and set the narrative of the crisis — given Russia’s history of disinformation campaigns.
Jake Sullivan, the White House national security adviser, on Friday rejected comparisons with the US release of intelligence about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, which was later debunked, in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq war.
“In Iraq, intelligence was used and deployed from this very podium to start a war. We’re trying to stop a war,” Sullivan told reporters from the White House briefing room. “All we can do is come here before you in good faith and share everything we know to the best of our ability, while protecting sources and methods so we continue to get the access to intelligence we need.”
In addition to the claims about Moscow’s plans for a puppet regime in Kyiv, the US and its allies have openly spoken about the build-up of more than 130,000 Russian troops on Ukraine’s border. They have also alleged Putin was planning to engineer a pretext for war via a “false-flag” operation in which Russia would fake a Ukrainian attack.
“The Russians are playing a lot of games and flooding the environment with all sorts of rumours and exaggerations [to] better understand how Ukrainian society is thinking and how its psychology is evolving under the current stress,” a former senior western intelligence official said.
“Creating chaos is a traditional tactic. If Putin wants to create the appearance of a civil war with riots on the streets . . . Tsaryov might be a useful marionette until a long-term candidate can be groomed.”
Andrea Kendall-Taylor, director of the transatlantic security programme at the Center for a New American Security, said she did not see “a lot of downside risk” in western warnings about Russia’s plans.
“Having missed the [Crimea] incursion of 2014, having not been prepared and caught flat-footed when Russia intervened in Syria, not having really warned about the threats of Russia’s attacks on [the US] election in 2016, why would we not warn?” she asked. “If it doesn’t come to fruition, we should all be glad and relieved.”
Additional reporting by John Paul Rathbone in London