February 25, 2015 / 5:49 PM / in 3 years

Kremlin saw plan to annex Crimea before Yanukovich fell: newspaper

MOSCOW (Reuters) - The Kremlin was presented with a plan to annex the Crimea peninsula and eastern Ukraine before the overthrow of the country’s Moscow-leaning president last year, an independent newspaper reported on Wednesday.

Novaya Gazeta, an investigative newspaper that is often critical of President Vladimir Putin, published details of what it said was a document presented to the presidential administration some time between Feb. 4 and Feb. 12 last year.

The Kremlin described the report as nonsense. Russia has denied it had a plan to annex Crimea before President Viktor Yanukovich fled Kiev on Feb. 21 last year and says it acted in response to the will of the people, voiced in a referendum.   

Novaya Gazeta said the document concluded that the Yanukovich presidency was politically bankrupt, the president’s fall could be imminent and civil war could follow.

Suggesting that the European Union and the United States would not oppose the breakup up Ukraine, it proposed creating conditions to hold referendums in Crimea and the Russian-speaking Donbass region of east Ukraine on self-determination and possible unification with Russia.

“It is very important that the ‘world community’ has as little reason as possible to doubt the legitimacy and honesty of these referendums,” it quoted the document as saying, adding that the document called for a publicity campaign in the Russian press to support such moves.

The veracity of the document could not be confirmed and Novaya Gazeta did not say who had prepared it or whether it had been adopted by the Kremlin. It quoted an oligarch loyal to the Kremlin as denying any involvement.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: “It’s all the newspaper’s nonsense.”

Russia annexed mainly Russian-speaking Crimea on March 21 last year. More than 5,600 people have been killed in fighting between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russian separatists who rose up in east Ukraine the following month.

Putin’s popularity soared after the annexation of Crimea but it prompted the European Union and the United States to impose economic sanctions on Russia.

Reuters has also seen a document from June 2013 that set out Moscow’s fear of losing influence in Ukraine and its desire to draw its neighbor into an economic union. The Kremlin declined to comment on that document.

Reporting by Timothy Heritage and Vladimir Soldatkin; Editing by Giles Elgood

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