In the weeks before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Western intelligence fixated on gaming out Russian President Vladimir Putin’s plan for the country.
The goal, British and U.S. intelligence said, could be a puppet government installed by the Kremlin, composed of former Ukrainian officials who were in contact with Russian operatives. The two governments even went so far as to name individuals they believed would be involved in such a government.
Many of the Ukrainians named struck people in the country and close followers of Ukrainian politics as hilarious — they were, by and large, either political nobodies, or people who had fled to Russia after the 2014 revolution, blowing up any credibility they had with the public.
But many Western intelligence predictions — initially viewed with skepticism in Ukraine — have borne out in recent weeks. And over the past few days, some of the would-be members of the theoretical puppet government have poked their heads back into public life.
Take Oleg Tsaryov, a former member of Ukraine’s parliament who fled to Russia in 2014.
Tsaryov told the FT before the invasion that reports that he was being considered for a post-invasion leadership role in Ukraine were ridiculous.
“I’m not even invited to speak on [Russian] state TV because I’m not important enough,” he told the paper on Feb. 14. “I’m a sanatorium director in Yalta.”
Nine days later, he wrote to his 54,000 Telegram subscribers that “no peace in Ukraine is possible without denazification,” echoing Putin’s language as he announced the invasion.
The next morning, as Russian missiles struck airbases around the country and tanks rolled in, Tsaryov said he was in Ukraine.
“Kyiv will be free of fascists!” he wrote, adding in a later message on the first day of the invasion: “Victory is inevitable. Ukraine will be free and denazified.”
“We’re already here. Wellness to everyone!” he wrote the next day.
But two days later, after Zelensky promised to stay in Kyiv and Ukrainian soldiers rallied to defend major cities, Tsaryov struck a more somber note.
“Especially for those who have begun to lose heart for some reason — everything is only beginning,” he wrote. “Confidence in the victory of our deed is unshakeable.”
Others on Western intelligence lists left Ukraine before the attack began.
Oleh Voloshyn, a Ukrainian MP sanctioned by the U.S. in January over alleged ties to Russian intelligence, told TPM on Feb. 14 that he had driven from Kyiv to Belarus.
When TPM asked why he left, Voloshyn replied: “Sorry. I can’t disclose all the details. But those who flee mostly choose warmer countries. Should something happen like some predict Belarus will also be involved this or that way.”
After the invasion began, TPM reached out to Voloshyn again. He declined to comment apart from saying “god knows” when asked when he would return to Ukraine.
Yevhen Muraev, another current MP, was named by British intelligence in February as a possible postwar leader of Ukraine. Murayev runs a political party called Nashi, which shares a name with a pro-Putin youth movement that the Kremlin has fostered in Russia. He is known for a failed presidential campaign in 2019 that earned particular ridicule.
On Feb. 24, the day of the invasion, Murayev released a statement on Facebook in which he said that “all these years, our authorities have lived off of war, building their policies around it, and now that war is on each of our doorsteps.”
Murayev suggested that the invasion had been brought on by Ukraine’s ambitions to join the EU and NATO, resulting in a fate to be borne by its entire population.
“This is the consequence of incorrect and stupid decisions, that everyone will now have to disentangle themselves from,” he added.
Mykola Azarov, a former Prime Minister of Ukraine also named by British intelligence, made a similar statement about the need to hold Zelensky responsible, claiming he had caused the deaths of millions of Russians — a riff on Putin’s fabricated claims of “genocide.”
“The death of peaceful citizens in the Donbas are on his conscience, the shelling and destruction in the Donbas, the absolutely unconstitutional, illegal decisions on closing TV channels, on issuing sanctions, on persecuting the political opposition,” Azarov said of the politician, who remains barricaded in Kyiv. “He did so much that was criminal towards Ukraine.”