Moscow has been planning to annex parts of Ukraine for more than 12 months, according to sensational claims made in a Russian newspaper.
Vladimir Putin’s office reportedly compiled a detailed roadmap of how a "pro-Russian drift" could allow it to seize Crimea and some eastern provinces, just a few weeks prior to the ousting of President Viktor Yanukovych and the start of the Ukrainian crisis.
According to a document allegedly leaked to the Novaya Gazeta newspaper, Russia had identified Mr Yanukovych as “politically bankrupt”, and outlined a plan by which a “coup” would set in motion events ultimately leading to Russian expansion.
The extraordinary claims made by the newspaper, which is one of the last independent media outlets in the country and was recently nominated for the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize for its investigations, could not be independently verified. The alleged document, translated into English by the Kyiv Post, was reportedly provided to Mr Putin’s office for consideration between 4 and 12 February 2014 – the same month that Mr Yanukovych was removed by the Ukrainian parliament.
Novaya Gazeta reported in its introduction that the events that have followed in the past year in Ukraine resemble with “a great deal of correlation” the “step-by-step [guide to] the basis, political and PR logistics of Russia's interference into Ukrainian affairs and estrangement from Ukraine of Crimea and eastern provinces”.
Ukraine crisis: A timeline of the conflict
Ukraine crisis: A timeline of the conflict
1/22 30 November 2013
Public support grows for the “Euromaidan” anti-government protesters in Kiev demonstrating against Yanukovych’s refusal to sign the EU Association Agreement as images of them injured by police crackdown spread.
2/22 20 February 2014
Kiev sees its worst day of violence for almost 70 years as at least 88 people are killed in 48 hours, with uniformed snipers shooting at protesters from rooftops.
3/22 22 February 2014
Yanukovych flees the country after protest leaders and politicians agree to form a new government and hold elections. The imprisoned former Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, is freed from prison and protesters take control of Presidential administration buildings, including Mr Yanukovych's residence.
Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Imageses
4/22 27 February 2014
Pro-Russian militias seize government buildings in Crimea and the new Ukrainian government vows to prevent the country breaking up as the Crimean Parliament sets a referendum on secession from Ukraine in May.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
5/22 16 March 2014
Crimea votes overwhelmingly to secede from Ukraine and join Russia in a ballot condemned by the US and Europe as illegal. Russian troops had moved into the peninsula weeks before after pro-Russian separatists occupied buildings.
6/22 6 April 2014
Pro-Russian rebels seize government buildings in the eastern cities of Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv, calling for a referendum on independence and claiming independent republic. Ukraine authorities regain control of Kharkiv buildings on 8 April after launching an “anti-terror operation” but the rest remain out of their control.
7/22 7 June 2014
Petro Poroshenko is sworn in as Ukraine's president, calling on separatists to lay down their arms and end the fighting and later orders the creation of humanitarian corridors, since violated, to allow civilians to flee war zones.
8/22 27 June 2014
The EU signs an association agreement with Ukraine, along with Georgia and Moldova, eight months after protests over the abandonment of the deal sparked the crisis.
LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images
9/22 17 July 2014
Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 is shot down over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board. Ukrainian intelligence officials claim it was hit by rebels using a Buk surface-to-air launcher in an apparent accident.
10/22 22 August 2014
A Russian aid convoy of more than 100 lorries enters eastern Ukraine and makes drop in rebel-controlled Luhansk without Government permission, sparking allegations of a “direct violation of international law”.
11/22 29 August 2014
Nato releases satellite images appearing to show Russian soldiers, artillery and armoured vehicles engaged in military operations in eastern Ukraine.
12/22 8 September 2014
Russia warns that it could block flights through its airspace if the EU goes ahead with new sanctions over the ongoing crisis and conflict
13/22 17 September 2014
Despite the cease-fire and a law passed by the Ukrainian parliament on Tuesday granting greater autonomy to rebel-held parts of the east, civilian casualties continued to rise, adding to the estimated 3,000 people killed
14/22 16 November 2014
The fragile ceasefire gives way to an increased wave of military activity as artillery fire continues to rock the eastern Ukraine's pro-Russian rebel bastion of Donetsk
15/22 26 December 2014
A new round of ceasefire talks, scheduled on neutral ground in the Belariusian capital Minsk, are called off
16/22 12 January 2015
Soldiers in Debaltseve were forced to prepare heavy defences around the city; despite a brief respite to the fighting in eastern Ukraine, hostilities in Donetsk resumed at a level not seen since September 2014
17/22 21 January 2015
13 people are killed during shelling of bus in the rebel-held city of Donetsk
18/22 24 January 2015
Ten people were killed after pro-Russian separatists bombarded the east Ukrainian port city of Mariupol
19/22 2 February 2015
There was a dangerous shift in tempo as rebels bolstered troop numbers against government forces
20/22 11 February 2015
European leaders meet in Minsk and agree on a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine beginning on February 14. From left to right: Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, France's President Francois Hollande and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
MAXIM MALINOVSKY | AFP | Getty Images
21/22 13 February 2015
Pro-Russian rebels in the city of Gorlivka, in the Donetsk region, fire missiles at Ukrainian forces in Debaltseve. Fighting continued in Debaltseve for a number of days after the Minsk ceasefire began.
ANDREY BORODULIN | AFP | Getty Images
22/22 18 February 2015
Ukrainian soldiers repair the bullet-shattered windshield of their truck as their withdraw from the strategic town of Debaltseve. Following intense shelling from pro-Russian rebels, Ukrainian forces began to leave the town in the early hours of February 18.
Brendan Hoffman | Getty Images
Among the highlighted details of the plan are “a pejorative assessment of Yanukovych, whom Russia later presented as a victim of a coup and the only legitimate leader of Ukraine”.
It details the eastern, cross-border regions of “Donbas” and “Dnepr”, among others, as “euroregions” that are “legitimate from the point of view of the European Union”.
“Using [this] instrument, Russia should achieve deals on cross-border cooperation and then establish direct interstate relations with the Ukrainian territories where stable pro-Russian electoral sentiments exist,” the alleged document reads.
The document also suggests that Russia’s support for such territories “will obviously be a burden for the budget in the current situation”, but adds that “in geopolitical perspective it will give us a priceless gain – our country will receive access to new demographic resources and highly-qualified personnel in the industrial and transport sphere”.
One section of the document appears to lay out the need for the destabilisation of “events in western Ukraine”. “To launch the process of the ‘pro-Russian drift’ of Crimean and Eastern Ukrainian territories, it's needed to create the events that would give this process political legitimacy and moral justification, beforehand,” it reads.
In his most recent comments on the Ukrainian crisis during an interview with Russian state TV, Mr Putin repeated denials that his government was providing support to rebels in eastern Ukraine.
The Novaya Gazeta report, issued on Tuesday evening, came as a long-awaited truce appeared to be taking hold in eastern Ukraine with the start of the withdrawal of heavy weapons from the front line.
A truce agreed in Minsk by Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany was due begin on 15 February, and after a shaky start seemed on Wednesday to have halted most of the violence on the frontline.
The OSCE says it cannot yet verify the withdrawal because the sides have not said how many guns were in place before the truce. It reported some shelling and shooting at various locations, including near Shyrokyne, a coastal town on the road to Mariupol where Kiev has also reported fighting.
The Kiev military nevertheless said the number of ceasefire violations had "significantly decreased" for a second straight night, and its account of the past 24 hours was the calmest since the truce was agreed in the Belarusian capital.
Additional reporting by Reuters