KIEV: Russian-backed rebels fighting against Kiev on Tuesday announced a plan to create a new "state" they said would take the place of Ukraine and have its capital in their territory.
Ukraine's pro-Western authorities immediately ridiculed the idea as a Kremlin project that they would never allow to get off the ground.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov in turn called the plan the "personal initiative" of rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko and said that "Moscow learnt about it this morning from media", in comments to Russian news agency RIA Novosti.
The separatists said the proposed country would be founded after a referendum and called Malorossiya, a tsarist-era name meaning "Little Russia" that once described most of the area covering modern-day Ukraine.
A constitution presented by rebel leader Zakharchenko said his self-declared Donetsk People's Republic, neighbouring rebel-held Lugansk and other regions had agreed to "declare the establishment of a new state, which is the successor of Ukraine."
The document -- released by the separatists' news agency -- said rebel bastion Donetsk would become the capital, while Kiev would be reduced to the status of a "historical and cultural centre".
The proposal seems to stand no chance of gaining traction and the insurgents themselves appeared unable to agree on it.
The press service for Lugansk rebel chief Igor Plotnitsky said he had not been consulted on the project.
Ukraine's Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin quickly derided the plan on Twitter as another "show" by the insurgents' "Kremlin puppet masters".
"We and our partners will not let this happen," he vowed.
The surprise announcement of Malorossiya could, however, further dent an already stalled peace process that has failed to end more than three years of fighting that has claimed the lives of around 10,000 people.
A deal brokered by the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany in the Belarusian capital Minsk in 2015 has hit a wall but is still viewed by those involved as the only way of unwinding Ukraine's war.
France's foreign ministry called on Moscow "to denounce" the rebel announcement, which it described as a "violation" of the peace deal.
"Russia has to intensify its efforts to put an end to this conflict," a statement said.
Kremlin spokesman Peskov insisted later that Moscow remains committed to the Minsk accords.
The proposal by the rebels echoed language used by the Kremlin in the early days of the conflict that promoted fears Russia was looking to annex swathes of mainland Ukraine after its seizure of the Crimea peninsula.
Moscow used the tsarist-era name "Novorossiya" (New Russia) to refer to the areas the rebels had seized, but the term was later dropped.
Ukraine and the West say Moscow has funnelled troops and arms across the border to fan the flames of the war in Europe's backyard.
Moscow has denied the allegations despite overwhelming evidence that it has been involved in the fighting and its explicit political support for the rebels.