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Ukraine has uncovered Russia-backed coup plot, says president

Ukraine’s president has said the country’s intelligence services have uncovered a Russian-backed plot to stage a coup against his government, as international worries mount that Moscow may be preparing a deeper invasion of the country.

Volodymyr Zelensky told reporters on Friday that the intelligence services had obtained recordings of conversations between unnamed Russians and Ukrainians who he said were discussing ousting him as early as next Wednesday or Thursday.

Zelensky offered no evidence to support his claim but added that the suspected plotters had discussed raising “billions of dollars” and luring Ukraine’s richest oligarch Rinat Akhmetov into the operation.

Fears of a return to open hostilities in the long-running conflict on Ukraine’s eastern border with Russia have risen in recent weeks after the US alerted allies to its own intelligence indicating a “high probability” that a recent build-up of Russian troops on its side of the frontier could be laying the groundwork for a deeper invasion, following Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.

Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan spoke with Zelensky’s chief of staff Andriy Yermak on Friday. A spokesperson for the US National Security Council said Sullivan underscored Washington’s “unwavering commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity”.

Ukraine estimates that Russia has massed as many as 114,000 troops to the north, east and south of the Donbas, a mostly Russian-speaking region in the country’s far east, where Russia-backed separatists have fought government forces since a pro-western revolution in Kyiv eight years ago.

Russian president Vladimir Putin admitted last week that he was pleased that the Kremlin’s “warnings” about its “red lines” — that Moscow would not accept further western military assistance to Ukraine or the country joining Nato — had rattled the west. He said western powers were using Ukraine for their own aggressive ends against Moscow by funding its army and holding “provocative” exercises near the Russian border.

Zelensky said Ukraine’s armed forces were “prepared for any escalation” and called on Putin to distance himself from the alleged plot.

“The president of the Russian Federation, too, it seems to me, should publicly say that ‘we do not plan’ . . . [and] that Russia is not preparing a full-scale invasion of Ukraine,” Zelensky said.

The Kremlin denied any involvement in the alleged coup plot. Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, told reporters that Russia had “no plans to participate” and “never does things like this”, according to Interfax.

Zelensky suggested Akhmetov’s “entourage” was trying to “drag him in” to the alleged plot. He stopped short of implicating Akhmetov directly but claimed recordings exist that may implicate the oligarch.

“This is not only intelligence information, but also sound information, where representatives from Ukraine, so to speak, discuss the participation of Rinat Akhmetov in the coup d’état in Ukraine with representatives of Russia,” Zelensky said.

“I think [Akhmetov] may not know about it,” the president added. “I invite Rinat Akhmetov to [my office] to listen to the information that can be shared.”

Akhmetov is a steel and energy tycoon who once bankrolled pro-Russian former president Viktor Yanukovich but lost some of his estimated $7.5bn fortune after Moscow-backed separatists seized several of his industrial assets in the Donbas.

He dismissed Zelensky’s claims. “The information made public by Volodymyr Zelensky about attempts to draw me into some kind of coup is an absolute lie . . . My position has been and will be explicit and definite: an independent, democratic, and united Ukraine with the Crimea and my home region, Donbas,” Akhmetov said in a statement on Friday.

“I will continue to defend a free Ukraine . . . I will do everything I can to prevent authoritarianism and censorship in Ukraine,” he added.

The two men are embroiled in an increasingly public conflict over Zelensky’s attempts to curb the vast influence Ukraine’s oligarchs wield over politics and state contracts.

Akhmetov’s TV channels fulsomely praised Zelensky after his 2019 landslide election victory but have switched to harsh criticism in recent weeks.

Zelensky said on Friday that Akhmetov’s television channels “don’t have the right to misinform our public”. He also took a swipe at Akhmetov’s energy companies, suggesting they were not working with the government to secure ample supplies of coal and other fuels to prevent destabilising electricity blackouts this winter.

Akhmetov’s companies have denied such allegations and claim they have secured crucial coal imports, including for state thermoelectric generators, after Russia blocked shipments.

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