By Katie Bo Lillis and Kevin Liptak, CNN
Multiple US and western government officials tell CNN that the US has intelligence that Russia has drawn up lists of current political figures that it would target for removal in the event it invades Ukraine and topples the current government in Kyiv.
Sources familiar with the intelligence say the target lists are part of Russian planning to replace the current administration in Kyiv with a more Russia-friendly government, bolstering a previous disclosure by the British government identifying pro-Moscow figures it said Russia planned to install.
The most likely outcome for those politicians and public figures whom Moscow has targeted to be ousted in the event Kyiv falls, these sources say, is jail or assassination.
“We’ll see what kinds of choices these people will be given, but a lot of them will be jailed or killed,” said one source familiar with the intelligence. “I think for most it will depend on how cooperative these people are when the time comes and the circumstances in which they are captured or taken.”
“If it’s in public” — in front of cameras — “that’ll be different, very different, from somebody who they corner in the middle of nowhere,” this person added.
CNN has not seen the underlying intelligence intercepts or the documents that name the targets or the purported collaborators and their supposed positions in a pro-Russia administration.
And for now, the threat remains contingent on invasion, even as Russia has massed between 169,000 and 190,000 personnel in and around Ukraine, including Russian-led forces in breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine.
American officials have continued to escalate warnings that Russia is prepared to launch an invasion in Ukraine in the coming days — including a full-scale march on Kyiv — but they caution that they don’t believe that Russian President Vladimir Putin has issued the order yet. Putin’s exact plans remain stubbornly difficult to determine. Western intelligence officials have closely watched for signs that Russia has prepared a friendly government-in-waiting as a key indicator of its intentions.
“As we’ve seen in the past, we expect Russia will try to force cooperation through intimidation and repression,” said a separate US official. “These acts, which in past Russian operations have included targeted killings, kidnappings/forced disappearances, detentions, and the use of torture, would likely target those who oppose Russian actions, including Russian and Belarusian dissidents in exile in Ukraine, journalists and anti-corruption activists, and vulnerable populations such as religious and ethnic minorities and LGBTQI+ persons.”
CNN has reached out to the Ukrainian government for comment.
Foreign Policy first reported on the details of US intelligence on the Russian planning.
Biden administration has aggressively releasing intelligence
The revealing of the intelligence comes as the Biden administration has pursued a deliberate strategy of releasing as much intelligence as possible about what it knows about Russian planning on the Ukrainian border — even as it has declined to provide evidence of its claims, citing the need to protect sensitive intelligence sources and methods.
Russia’s goal in the event of an invasion, said the source familiar with the intelligence, would be to establish a friendly collaborator government that it can point to internationally as the legitimate government of Ukraine. And it has plenty of options to choose from, including political figures with dual citizenship, pro-Moscow politicians who fled to Russia after the 2014 democratic revolution, and friendly politicians who already hold seats in the Ukrainian parliament.
“They’re going to establish a collaborator local government very quickly,” the source said. “And they have identified the individuals who need to go and who they want to replace them.”
In late January, the British government accused Russia of seeking to replace Ukraine’s current government with a slate of pro-Moscow politicians. According to the British Foreign Office, those pro-Russian figures included former Ukrainian lawmaker Yevheniy Murayev — the head of a small, pro-Russia party that currently holds no seats in Ukraine’s parliament — and other Ukrainian politicians it said had links with Russian intelligence services.
Still, even as the intelligence revealing Russian military movements on the border has been unambiguous — and largely public — western officials still don’t know precisely what Putin’s goals and intentions are. In part, Russia has objected to Ukraine’s bid to join NATO and has demanded legally binding assurances from the alliance that it will not be allowed to join — an assurance NATO and the US has said they won’t make. But Russia has also demanded a limit on the deployment of troops and weapons on NATO’s eastern flank, and officials increasingly believe that Putin hopes to force a more expansive shift in the security architecture of the region.
“Every indication we have is they’re prepared to go into Ukraine, attack Ukraine,” President Joe Biden said on Thursday.
Broadly, current and former intelligence officials say, Putin wants to ensure a pro-Russia Ukraine. There are a number of different ways he might achieve this goal short of full invasion: It’s possible that he could try to use cyberattacks, the lingering specter of military action, and other grayzone tactics to destabilize the Ukrainian government from afar.
But Biden administration officials have in recent days begun to warn that the most drastic option — an attack on the Ukrainian capital — is likely.
“Russian tanks and soldiers will advance on key targets that have already been identified and mapped out in detailed plans,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in an address to the UN Security Council on Thursday. “We believe these targets include Russia’s capital — Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, a city of 2.8 million people.”
Biden administration officials have also ramped up warnings that Moscow could deploy a false pretext to justify an invasion into Ukraine at any moment, citing an increase in false claims by the Russians in recent days.
Blinken laid out what he described as Russia’s plan to “manufacture a pretext for its attack.”
“We don’t know exactly the form it will take,” Blinken said. “It could be a fabricated so-called ‘terrorist’ bombing inside Russia, the invented discovery of a mass grave, a staged drone strike against civilians, or a fake — even a real — attack using chemical weapons.”
“Next, the attack is planned to begin,” he said.
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