Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said he had information that the country’s richest man was being dragged into an alleged Russian-backed coup planned for next month, but he dismissed the idea as not credible.
The comments underscore the rising tensions between Russia and Ukraine, which accuses its neighbor of amassing military forces around its borders in what it says may be preparations for an invasion.
Zelenskyy said he had “certain audio recordings” in which plans to launch a coup next week were being discussed between unspecified people from Ukraine and Russia. They mentioned billionaire Rinat Akhmetov, who personally wasn’t taking part in the conversation, according to the president.
“I believe this is a setup,” of Akhmetov, Zelenskyy said during a press conference in Kyiv on Friday. The president stressed he didn’t believe the billionaire would get involved in the plot, as it would be a “fatal mistake” for him to take part in the “war” against him.
Akhmetov’s press service didn’t immediately provide a comment when asked by Bloomberg. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied the allegation of Russia being involved in the planned coup attempt.
“We never do things like that,” Peskov said.
Ukraine’s dollar bonds fell along with its GDP warrants that reached a one-year low, amid a global flight from risky assets triggered by worries over a new coronavirus variant. The hryvnia fell 0.2% against the U.S. dollar, weakening for the seventh straight day.
Zelenskyy said that the situation in the east, which includes the troop buildup and a standoff between Ukrainian forces against Moscow-backed separatists in the industrial and raw-material-rich Donbas region, isn’t worse than in the spring, when the Kremlin also amassed troops on the border and held military exercises.
“The probability of attack may itself be intimidation” tactics, Zelenskiy told reporters. He added that if the situation escalates, Ukraine has the backing of Western powers.
Kremlin insiders say that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aim is to halt Ukraine’s intention of integrating deeper with the European Union and NATO and cement it firmly back into Moscow’s sphere of influence.
Zelenskyy's statements about Akhmetov underscore how complicated the situation is. With vast holdings in Ukraine’s east, and particularly in the Donetsk region of Donbas, Akhmetov owns the country’s largest private power utility, DTEK, along with the country’s top soccer team and steel and iron-ore producers. He also owns a bank, insurers and media, including a television channel.
The latter has increased its criticism of Zelenskyy over a so-called “anti-oligarch” law, which the government approved as part of efforts to curb influence of the super-rich and clamp down on the corruption that’s plagued the eastern European nation since communism collapsed 30 years ago.
According to Tim Ash, a senior sovereign strategist at Bluebay Asset Management, “If the Russians were trying to provoke something, they would want to try and get some big leaders in the East involved.”
But he added that it would be “political and business suicide in Ukraine” for Akhmetov, who has tried to distance himself from Russia since protesters ousted the Kremlin-backed government in 2014.