Russia ‘planned’ Crimea annexation, report claims

Moscow says it acted spontaneously to protect Russian speakers it said were threatened

 Russian backed rebels serve hot tea to civilians on February 25th in Debaltseve, Ukraine. Photograph:  Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Russian backed rebels serve hot tea to civilians on February 25th in Debaltseve, Ukraine. Photograph: Andrew Burton/Getty Images


Russia has been planning to annex Crimea and a large part of southeastern Ukraine for more than 12 months, a Russian newspaper has reported.

A leaked memo drafted ahead of the collapse of the Ukrainian government last year recommended that Russia take advantage of the chaos Novaya Gazeta reported on Wednesday.

Russia has long contended that it acted spontaneously to reclaim Crimea, mainly to protect Russian speakers who it said were threatened, and to stave off what it suspected was an attempt by Nato to colonise the Black Sea region.

The report said that before the Ukrainian government collapsed on February 21st, 2014, the memo had already advised the Kremlin to adopt the policy it has since largely pursued in Ukraine.

The memo appears to have been drafted under the auspices of a conservative oligarch, Konstantin V Malofeev, the report said. The memo laid out what it called the inevitable disintegration of Ukraine and suggested a series of logistical steps through which Russia could exploit the situation for its own good - steps not far from what actually occurred, though Russia has not annexed any territory in eastern Ukraine.

Sometime between February 4th and 12th - while Russia was still voicing staunch support for its ally in Kiev, president Victor Yanukovych - the memo predicted Mr Yanukovych’s overthrow and suggested that Russia use the European Union’s own rules on self-determination to pry away Crimea and a significant chunk of eastern Ukraine.

Dmitry S Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, dismissed the memo as a hoax. “I don’t know whether this document exists at all,” he said. “I don’t know who might be the author, but for sure, the document has nothing to do with the Kremlin.”

The authenticity of the document could not be independently verified. The newspaper did not publish any pictures of the memo or provide any proof that the policy described in it had actually been adopted. The loss of Crimea had been a sore point in Moscow since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

In addition, president Vladimir Putin suggested last year that much of southeastern Ukraine, from Kharkiv to Odessa, actually formed a distinct area known in czarist times as New Russia.

That talk faded as it became clear that only a minority of the population in and around just two cities, Luhansk and Donetsk, had any interest in joining Russia. But Russia has pushed for federalisation of Ukraine, another recommendation in the memo, since the beginning.

In February, with the Yanukovych government teetering, the memo’s author recommended that Russia take advantage of the “centrifugal forces” tearing apart Ukraine to merge its east with Russia. “The dominant regions for the application of force should be Crimea and the Kharkiv region,” it said, noting that strong groups there endorsed the idea of joining Russia.

Oddly, the memo left out the Donetsk region, now the separatists’ main center of power, speculating that the links between Kiev and the most powerful local oligarch, Rinat L Akhmetov, were too strong for the region to break away.

Novaya Gazeta identified Mr Malofeev as the mastermind behind the document, though it also quoted his communications team as denying any involvement by him.

The European Union has imposed sanctions on Mr Malofeev over his support for the separatists, including his statements that eastern Ukraine, but not the whole country, could be incorporated into Russia.

The memo was dismissive of Mr Yanukovych’s chances of bringing the situation under control. “President Yanukovych is not a very charismatic person,” it said. “He is afraid to give up the presidential post and at the same time is prepared to trade the security officers for guarantees of keeping the post and of immunity after resignation.”

Moscow should abandon the Ukrainian leader, the report suggested. “There is no sense in further Russian political, diplomatic, financial or media support for the regime,” it said. Among other reasons for keeping control over Ukraine, it said, was to maintain the gas supply routes that help Russia dominate European supplies.

Russia again criticised Ukraine over the gas issue on Wednesday, with Mr Putin saying Kiev was trying to decimate its own people by cutting off supplies to the southeast.

He spoke as a cease-fire in southeastern Ukraine seemed to be taking hold, at least for a day. “A cease-fire exists, but it is very fragile,” said Mr Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, referring to the truce signed February 12th in Minsk, Belarus. “If we all manage to make the parties concerned take the second and third steps in accordance with the Minsk agreement, then there is a chance for a sustainable cease-fire.”

Those steps include withdrawing heavy weapons from the front lines and beginning a political dialogue on the future of the separatist areas in Ukraine. The Ukrainian military said that for a second night in a row, cease-fire violations had “significantly decreased,” and that the previous 24 hours had been the quietest since the signing of the cease-fire. Yet concerns about the strength of the truce remained, with the Ukrainian military spokesman saying it could not move to the next stage, the withdrawal of heavy weapons, as long as the separatists continued fighting.

Rebel forces said they had already begun withdrawing weapons, including 100 howitzers, from the front Tuesday.

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe issued a statement saying it could not confirm withdrawals by either side because it did not have a thorough accounting of the weapons that were there before the cease-fire.