Russian President Vladimir Putin sent an envoy to Damascus late last year to ask Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to "step aside," the Financial Times reported on Friday.
The newspaper said Putin sent Colonel-General Igor Sergun, director of Russia's military intelligence agency, to make the request "just weeks before [Sergun's] death on January 3."
Sergun bore a message to al-Assad, saying the Kremlin "believed it was time for him to step aside," it said.
The Syrian leader "angrily refused" Sergun's request, the newspaper said, citing two "senior Western intelligence officials" who provided details of the mission.
It said Moscow's proposal involved "a choreographed transition of power that would maintain the Alawite regime but open the door to realistic negotiations with moderate rebels."
If confirmed, the move would reflect a shift by Putin, who has publicly backed al-Assad, a member of the ruling Alawite sect, and insisted that he must be part of any political solution in Syria.
Russian Foreign and Defence Ministry officials declined to comment on the report, the newspaper said.