Russian diplomats held secret talks in London last year with people close to Julian Assange to assess whether they could help him flee the UK, the Guardian has learned.
A tentative plan was devised that would have seen the WikiLeaks founder smuggled out of Ecuador's London embassy in a diplomatic vehicle and transported to another country.
One ultimate destination, multiple sources have said, was Russia, where Assange would not be at risk of extradition to the US. The plan was abandoned after it was deemed too risky.
The operation to extract Assange was provisionally scheduled for Christmas Eve in 2017, one source claimed, and was linked to an unsuccessful attempt by Ecuador to give Assange formal diplomatic status.
The involvement of Russian officials in hatching what was described as a "basic" plan raises new questions about Assange's ties to the Kremlin. The WikiLeaks editor is a key figure in the ongoing US criminal investigation into Russia's attempts to sway the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.
Robert Mueller, the special counsel conducting the investigation, filed criminal charges in July against a dozen Russian GRU military intelligence officers who allegedly hacked Democratic party servers during the presidential campaign. The indictment claims the hackers sent emails that embarrassed Hillary Clinton to WikiLeaks. The circumstances of the handover are still under investigation.