By Mark Trevelyan
LONDON (Reuters) -Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Wednesday that Moscow’s military “tasks” in Ukraine now went beyond the eastern Donbas region, in the clearest acknowledgment yet that it has expanded its war goals.
In an interview with state media nearly five months after Russia’s invasion, the foreign minister also said peace talks made no sense at the moment because Western governments were leaning on Ukraine to fight rather than negotiate.
Ukraine’s foreign minister retorted that Russia wanted “blood, not talks”.
When Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, President Vladimir Putin explicitly denied any intention of occupying his neighbour. He said then that his aim was to demilitarise and “denazify” Ukraine – a statement dismissed by Kyiv and the West as a pretext for an imperial-style war of expansion.
But Lavrov said geographical realities had changed since Russian and Ukrainian negotiators held peace talks in Turkey in late March that failed to produce any breakthrough.
At that time, he said, the focus was on the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DPR and LPR), self-styled breakaway entities in eastern Ukraine from which Russia has said it aims to drive out Ukrainian government forces.
“Now the geography is different, it’s far from being just the DPR and LPR, it’s also Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions and a number of other territories,” he said, referring to areas well beyond the Donbas that Russia has wholly or partly seized.
“This process is continuing logically and persistently.”
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba responded: “By confessing dreams to grab more Ukrainian land, (the) Russian foreign minister proves that Russia rejects diplomacy and focuses on war and terror. Russians want blood, not talks.”
Lavrov said Russia might need to push even deeper if the West, out of “impotent rage” or desire to aggravate the situation further, kept pumping Ukraine with long-range weapons such as the U.S.-made High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS).
“That means the geographical tasks will extend still further from the current line,” he said.
Russia could not allow Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy “or whoever replaces him” to threaten its territory or that of the DPR and LPR with the longer-range systems, he said – referring casually, and without any evidence, to the possibility that the Ukrainian leader might not remain in power.
After failing to take the Ukrainian capital Kyiv at the start of the war, Russia said in March it would focus on “achieving the main goal, the liberation of Donbas”.
Nearly four months later, it has taken Luhansk, one of two provinces that comprise the Donbas, but remains far from capturing all of the other, Donetsk. In the past few weeks it has ramped up missile strikes on cities across Ukraine.
Lavrov spoke a day after the White House said Russia was starting to roll out a plan to annex large parts of southern Ukraine under the cover of “sham referendums”.
Russian-imposed officials in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia have outlined plans to hold plebiscites in the coming months. The Kremlin says it is up to people living there to decide their own futures.
(Additional reporting by Max Hunder in Kyiv, Writing by Mark Trevelyan; Editing by Catherine Evans/Mark Heinrich)