Poison Pen

02.25.15 8:45 PM ET

Putin’s Secret Ukraine Plan ‘Leaked’

Publication of a leaked secret planning document raises questions about when and how Russia’s president might have planned the takeover of eastern Ukraine.

MOSCOW — Two weeks ago the editors of Novaya Gazeta, a newspaper famous in Russia for its investigative journalism, received an email from a Kremlin insider with a Word document attached. The email said that the document contained instructions on how to break Ukraine apart, and that the Kremlin had received that document from billionaire Konstantin Malofeyev in early February, well before Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych fled to Russia to escape the revolutionary fury of protesters in Kiev’s Maidan Square.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has claimed all along that Russia’s sympathy and support for rebels in eastern Ukraine was the result of attacks by the Ukrainian factions that came to power after Yanukovych abandoned the ship of state exactly a year ago this week.

How much did Putin know about this plan? According to the paper’s deputy editor, Sergei Sokolov, Novaya Gazeta does not have conclusive material evidence but does have “a strong sense” from its source that Putin reviewed the document in February 2014. “We’ve trusted that Kremlin insider for many years, he’s never misguided us,” Sokolov told The Daily Beast.

The editors of Novaya Gazeta hinted publicly about the document’s contents last week, and published it on Wednesday.

The ostensible author, Malofeyev, is the founder of the international investment fund Marshall Capital Partners and is believed to be close to the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. He is a well-known supporter of Russian nationalist movements, and in this lengthy memorandum he would seem to have put forth seven guidelines suggesting how to legitimize the integration of Ukraine’s regions into Russia itself, or at least into its firm sphere of influence.

The author of the memo advises the Kremlin to recognize the “bankruptcy” of Yanukovych and his ruling “family,” who were rapidly losing control in early February of last year. He advocated a “pragmatic” policy, recognizing that an independent or hostile government in Ukraine could threaten the interests of Gazprom, which sends much of its product to Western Europe through pipelines on Ukraine’s territory. If it were compromised or cut off, that would cause “huge damage the economy of our country,” the author of the paper warned.

The document recognized the fact that Ukraine’s constitution would make impossible a “legitimate” integration of Crimea and the eastern territories into the legal and political sphere of the Russian Federation, so “it seems right to play on the centrifugal aspirations of different regions of the country, with the aim, in one form or another, of initiating the accession of the eastern regions to Russia.”

The document suggests starting with Crimea and Kharkiv, where Russian sentiment was supposed to be strong. In the event, Crimea was taken, but Kharkiv was secured by Kiev.

In a particularly revealing point (Number 4) the document notes that by taking on the support of Crimea and the eastern regions, Moscow will be incurring some “onerous” financial costs, but “from a geopolitical point of view it will be an invaluable prize,” which the author describes primarily in manufacturing demographic terms. Russia not only will secure the extensive military industries in eastern Ukraine, which “will allow faster and more successful implementation of the program of the Armed Forces,” he writes, it also will be able to “count on the emergence of new Slavic migration flows” to counterbalance the apparently less desirable “Central Asian migration trends.”

Point 5 begins to describe the means of creating a “pro-Russian drift” in the Crimea and eastern Ukraine, with the groundwork laid ahead of time “to create events that can make this process politically legitimate and morally justified.” Much will depend on public relations, says the author of the paper, and that will portray the actions of Russia and the pro-Russian elites in Ukraine as having been forced by events.

The author of the paper suggests Moscow take the line (often heard since) that a “federal” Ukraine will liberate the eastern regions from the “violent nationalist minority population” identified with the Maidan protests. The key phrase: “Strengthening the state-legal ties with Russia, we will strengthen the integrity of the Ukrainian state.” The east should insist it will not be “hostage to Maidan,” and will tell people that to identify with Russia is to be against civil war.

The final point: All this should be reinforced by “a PR campaign” in the Russian and Ukrainian press supporting the accession of the eastern regions and building enthusiasm among the Russian public.

Why would anyone in the Kremlin leak such a document—and why now?

“It is important to understand,” said Sokolov, “that there are people inside the red wall [the Kremlin] who feel concerned about the war in Ukraine, ultra-nationalism and reckless politics, people who would like to stop the war but cannot do it themselves.” They want it done “with somebody else’s hands.”

Novaya Gazeta was founded in 1990, partly with Nobel Peace Prize money donated by Mikhail Gorbachev. Since 2001, six brave journalists and frequent contributors at the newspaper have been murdered, including Anna Politkovskaya, Natalya Estemirova, and Anastasia Baburova.

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Over the last year, the paper’s investigation of Malofeyev’s role connected to financing the war in Ukraine was another major risk Novaya Gazeta thought it was worth taking.

Malofeyev’s involvement in the conflict has been reported since last spring. In early June, The Daily Beast interviewed activists of the Russian nationalist group Light Rus in Luhansk who claimed that they had “broken through” Ukraine’s border specifically to deliver humanitarian help financed by Malofeyev.

Although multiple experts and reports linked Malofeyev with the rebel movement in Ukraine, the billionaire vowed to take Novaya Gazeta to court for trying to blackmail him, Sokolov said.

What seemed “deeply cynical,” Sokolov pointed out, was that the document mentioned nothing about the pseudo state “Novorossia,“ so popular among flag-waving war propagandists. Instead it focused on cold-blooded geopolitics.

“Putin limited the circle of people he took seriously,” according to Sokolov, “but Malofeyev’s document made it to him through the Andrei Pervozvanny Foundation,” a think tank that is “one of the few sources he trusted.”

“Our investigation established a link between Malofeyev and Alexander Borodai, a Moscow public relations expert who later became the DNR [Donetsk People’s Republic] leader,” said Sokolov. “To carry out their plan in Ukraine, Malofeyev and Borodai hired Igor “Strelkov” Girkin to command the operation in Crimea and Donbass. Strelkov was a special service officer fired from the FSB for his connections with the ultra-Nazi Russian Nationalist Fighters Group,” Sokolov said.

So, were Malofeyev and Borodai the real masterminds of this war?

A Moscow-based expert on Kremlin politics. Stanislav Belkovsky, doubts that Putin ever listened to Malofeyev. He says that Putin was offended by Western leaders who did not visit his Sochi Olympics and “now pushes the Westerners to love Russia by force.”

Belkovsky says that it is pointless to guess who created the plan for Putin. “Since 2004 I have seen tons of documents similar to the one published in Novaya Gazeta,” Belkovsky told The Daily Beast. “Indeed, there are those in the Kremlin who are worried about Russia going down the drain, but the strategy and plan for the war is in Putin’s own head: He wants the West to reconsider the Yalta sphere of influence agreement”—the deal that British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt made with Soviet leader Joseph Stalin near the end of World War II that effectively drew an iron curtain around Eastern Europe for more than 40 years.

Putin’s ambitions may not stretch quite that far, but he wants “a new plan, where Russia would have power and control over post-Soviet territories,” says Belkovsky. “Until the European Union leaders sit down for a new Yalta meeting, the war in Ukraine will continue.”

With additional reporting by Christopher Dickey.