Russia’s top diplomat said Moscow’s overarching goal in Ukraine is to remove from power its “unacceptable regime,” expressing the Kremlin’s war aims in some of the bluntest terms yet as its forces pummel the country with heavy bombardment.
The remark from Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov comes amid Ukraine’s efforts to resume grain exports from its Black Sea ports, something that would help ease global food shortages, under a new deal tested by a Russian strike on Odesa over the weekend.
After the failed attempt to seize much of the country amid its February invasion, Moscow officials have stated that the goal of Russia’s aggression on its western neighbour was to “liberate” the Kremlin-backed and equipped separatists in the eastern industrial region of the Donbas.
However, this goal was recently expanded to parts of Ukraine’s south, such as the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions, while many believe Moscow also has the Black Sea port of Odesa in its crosshairs.
Speaking to envoys at an Arab League summit in Cairo late Sunday, Lavrov accused Kyiv and its Western allies of spouting propaganda intended to ensure that Ukraine “becomes the eternal enemy of Russia”.
“We are determined to help the people of eastern Ukraine to liberate themselves from the burden of this absolutely unacceptable regime,” he said.
Suggesting that Moscow’s war aims extend beyond Ukraine’s industrial Donbas region in the east, Lavrov said: “We will certainly help the Ukrainian people to get rid of the regime, which is absolutely anti-people and anti-historical.”
Lavrov’s remarks conflicted with the Kremlin’s line early in the war when it repeatedly emphasised that Russia was not seeking to overthrow President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government, even as Moscow’s troops closed in on Kyiv.
Russia later retreated from around the capital and turned its attention to capturing the Donbas. The fighting is now in its sixth month.
Zelenskyy and other Ukrainian security officials claimed that, in fact, Moscow had sent special units tasked with capturing or killing the Ukrainian president in Kyiv early on in the war.
Lavrov now argued that Russia was ready to negotiate a deal to end hostilities in March when Kyiv changed tack and declared its intention to rout Russia on the battlefield. He said the West has been encouraging Ukraine to keep fighting.
“The West insists that Ukraine must not start negotiations until Russia is defeated on the battlefield,” Lavrov said.
Grain exports deal up in the air
It was not yet clear when grain shipments would resume following Russia and Ukraine’s signing of agreements with the United Nations and Turkey on Friday.
The deals are aimed at clearing the way for the shipment of millions of tons of desperately needed Ukrainian grain, as well as the export of Russian grain and fertiliser.
Ukraine’s deputy infrastructure minister, Yury Vaskov, said the first shipment of grain is planned for this week.
While Russia faced accusations that the weekend attack on the port of Odesa amounted to reneging on the deal, Moscow insisted the strike would not affect grain shipments.
During a visit to the Republic of Congo on Monday, Lavrov repeated the Russian military claim that the strike targeted a Ukrainian navy boat and a depot with Harpoon anti-ship missiles supplied by the West. He said the attack took part in the military section of the port at “a significant distance” from the grain terminal.
“We haven’t created any obstacles to grain deliveries in accordance with the agreements signed in Istanbul,” Lavrov said. He said the agreements “contain nothing that would prevent us from continuing the special military operation and destroying military infrastructure and other military targets.”
The foreign minister also planned to visit Uganda and Ethiopia in what was seen as an effort to bolster non-Western and African support for Russia, especially for any upcoming UN votes.
In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Moscow has no interest in halting all gas supplies to Europe and that recent restrictions on the flow “are simply the consequences of restrictions the Europeans have imposed, and the Europeans themselves are suffering from these restrictions.”
“Russia is a responsible gas supplier, and no matter what anyone says, the European Commission, in European capitals, in the US, Russia has been and continues to be a country that to a large extent guarantees Europe’s energy security,” Peskov said.
Hours later, Russia’s gas giant Gazprom said it would further reduce the flow of natural gas through a major pipeline to Europe to 20% of capacity, citing equipment repairs.
‘A deadly lottery’
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s presidential office said Monday at least two civilians were killed and 10 wounded in Russian shelling over the preceding 24 hours.
In the eastern Donetsk region, the focus of the Russian offensive, Russian artillery struck the cities of Avdiivka, Kramatorsk and Kostiantynivka. An airstrike on Bakhmut damaged at least five houses.
“The Russians are using the scorched-earth tactics across the entire Donbas. They fire from the ground and from the air to wipe off entire cities,” Donetsk Government Pavlo Kyrylenko said in televised remarks.
The Russians also struck the Kharkiv region. In Chuhuiv, workers searched for people believed trapped under the rubble after 12 rockets hit the town before dawn, damaging a cultural centre, school and other infrastructure, authorities said.
“All these years our society, residents have been creating and building comfortable life conditions,” Mayor Galina Minayeva said. “And now the enemy is destroying all this, killing children, peaceful residents. It’s very hard to describe all this.”
Kharkiv Governor Oleh Sinyehubov said: “It looks like a deadly lottery when no one knows where the next strike will come.”
In other developments, Russia said it thwarted an attempt by Ukrainian military intelligence to entice Russian military pilots to turn their planes over to Ukraine.
Russia’s Federal Security Service FSB — the successor to the KGB — said Ukrainians offered Russian pilots cash and European Union citizenship.
In a video released by the FSB, a man purported to be a Ukrainian intelligence officer offered a pilot $2 million (about €2m) to surrender his plane during a mission over Ukraine.
Russian state television claimed that Western spy agencies assisted the Ukrainians in the effort. The Russian claims couldn’t be independently verified.