Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov has said his country’s military goals in Ukraine go beyond the eastern Donbas region, according to state media, as Russian forces shelled southern and eastern Ukraine.
In an interview published by the state news agency RIA Novosti on Wednesday, Lavrov said that when Russia and Ukraine discussed a possible deal to end the hostilities, “our readiness to accept the Ukrainian proposal was based on the geography of March 2022”.
“The geography is different now. It is not only about the DNR and LNR,” Lavrov added, referring to the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DNR and LNR), Russian-backed entities in Ukraine’s east.
“But also the Kherson region, the Zaporizhia region and a number of other territories,” he said. “This process is continuing, consistently and persistently.”
His comments came after the United States said it saw signs Moscow was preparing to formally annex territory it has seized in its neighbor.
Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba retorted that Russia rejected diplomacy and wanted “blood, not talks”.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen meanwhile accused Russia of “blackmailing” the European Union over energy, as she unveiled a plan to slash gas demand in the bloc ahead of a feared cut-off of deliveries by Russia as winter approaches.
Russian President Vladimir Putin had earlier warned that gas supplies sent to Europe via the huge Nord Stream 1 pipeline, which has been closed for 10 days for maintenance, were at risk of being reduced further.
Russia’s war aims to expand
Lavrov is the most senior figure to speak openly of Russia’s war goals in territorial terms, nearly five months after Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the invasion on February 24 with the stated goal of “demilitarising and denazifying” the country – a statement dismissed by Ukraine and Western countries as a pretext for an imperial-style war of expansion.
At that time, Putin said his country did not intend to occupy any Ukrainian territories.
After failing to capture the capital Kyiv, Russia’s defense ministry said on March 25 that the first phase of what Moscow describes as its “special military operation” was complete and it would now focus on “achieving the main goal, the liberation of Donbas”.
Nearly four months later, it has taken Luhansk, one of two provinces that make up the Donbas – but remains far from capturing all of the other, Donetsk province.
While Russian forces have already seized territory far beyond Donbas, especially in the southern Zaporizhia and Kherson regions and continue to launch missile attacks on cities across Ukraine, the Institute for the Study of War described Lavrov’s comments as “notably divorced from the slow and grinding reality of recent Russian operations”.
The think tank provides daily updates on the situation on the ground, and has previously assessed that Russia had territorial ambitions beyond the Donbas.
In his interview, Lavrov also repeated earlier claims by Russia that the US and the United Kingdom – two of the Western countries that have provided military aid to Ukraine – were interested in expanding hostilities.
“They want to turn it into a real war and provoke a clash between Russia and European countries,” Lavrov said.
He also accused the US of preventing Ukraine from engaging in talks on a possible settlement with Russia.
“They are keeping them from any constructive steps and not only pumping in weapons but forcing them to use those weapons in an increasingly risky way,” Lavrov said.
Meanwhile in Washington, the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley said the Donbas region had not yet been lost to Russian forces.
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin told a meeting of allies that the United States will send four more HIMARS artillery systems to Ukraine, in its latest military aid for Kyiv.
The Ukrainian military reported heavy and sometimes fatal Russian shelling amid what they said were largely failed attempts by Russian ground forces to advance.
Citing US intelligence, White House national security spokesman John Kirby earlier accused Russia of laying the groundwork to annex Ukrainian land it has seized since the beginning of the war. The Russian embassy in Washington said the remark mischaracterized what Moscow was trying to do.
Russia’s invasion has killed thousands, displaced millions and flattened cities, particularly in Russian-speaking areas in the east and southeast of Ukraine. It has also raised global energy and food prices and raised fears of famine in poorer countries as Ukraine and Russia are both major grain producers.
Europe braces for gas disruption
In Brussels, a meeting of EU diplomats agreed upon more sanctions against Russia targeting gold as well as more individuals and entities, a person involved in the talks told Reuters.
The sanctions, due to take effect on Thursday, included blacklisting more individuals and entities held responsible for the war, said the Czech Republic, which now presides over talks among the EU’s 27 nations.
With uncertainty swirling over the planned restart on Thursday of Nord Stream 1, the EU proposed its member countries cut gas demand by 15 percent from now until spring.
Warning that without deep cuts members could struggle for fuel during winter if Russia cuts off supply in retaliation for the bloc’s support of Ukraine, the executive commission said that target could be made binding in an emergency.
“Russia is blackmailing us. Russia is using energy as a weapon,” Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said, describing a full cut-off of Russian gas flows as “a likely scenario” for which “Europe needs to be ready.”
Putin said the capacity of Nord Stream 1 could be reduced due to problems with other pumping units, one of which would need to be sent for maintenance on July 26. He said Russian energy giant Gazprom was ready to fulfill its obligations on gas exports.
Gazprom cut exports through the route to 40 percent capacity last month, citing delays in the return of a turbine Siemens Energy was servicing in Canada, which had initially banned the equipment’s return, citing sanctions.
Putin said on Wednesday it was not clear in what condition the turbine would be returned after repairs in Canada and that there was a risk that the equipment could be switched off halting the flow of gas through Nord Stream 1.
Russia, the world’s largest gas exporter, has denied Western accusations of using its energy supplies as a tool of coercion, saying it has been a reliable energy supplier.