Russia widens Ukraine war aims as gas pipeline restart tests nerves

Moscow's military "tasks" in Ukraine now go beyond the eastern Donbas region, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Wednesday, as the Kremlin's forces shelled eastern and southern Ukraine.

>>Reuters
Published : 20 July 2022, 08:49 PM
Updated : 20 July 2022, 08:49 PM

Lavrov also told state news agency RIA Novosti that Russia's objectives will expand still further if the West keeps supplying Kyiv with long-range weapons such as the U.S.-made High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS).

His comments, the clearest acknowledgment yet that Russia's war goals have expanded over the five months of war, came after Washington said it saw signs Moscow was preparing to formally annex territory it has seized in its neighbour.

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.

Lavrov is the most senior figure to speak openly of Russia's war goals in territorial terms, nearly five months after Putin launched his Feb. 24 invasion with a denial that Russia intended to occupy its neighbour.

Then, Putin said 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.

Lavrov told RIA Novosti 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 Russian-backed breakaway entities in eastern Ukraine from which Moscow 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 territories well beyond the Donbas that Russian forces have wholly or partly seized.

"This process is continuing logically and persistently," Lavrov said, adding that Russia might need to push even deeper.

After being beaten in an initial assault on the capital Kyiv, Russia's defence ministry said on March 25 the first phase of its "special military operation" was complete and it would now focus on "the main goal, the liberation of Donbas".

Nearly four months later, it has taken Luhansk, one of two regions that make up 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.

In Washington, the U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley said the Donbas region had not yet been lost to the Russians.U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told a meeting of allies that the United States will send four more HIMARS artillery systems to Ukraine, in its latest military help 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 U.S. intelligence, White House national security spokesman John Kirby earlier accused Russia of laying the groundwork to annex Ukrainian land it has seized since the start of the war. The Russian embassy in Washington said the remark mischaracterised 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 GETS READY

In Brussels, a meeting of EU diplomats agreed more sanctions against Russia targeting gold as well as more individuals and entities, a person involved in the talks said.

With uncertainty swirling over the planned restart on Thursday of Nord Stream 1, the EU proposed its 27 member countries cut gas demand by 15% 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".

Sources have told Reuters that Nord Stream 1, the largest link for Russian gas supplies to Europe, is expected to restart as scheduled on Thursday but at reduced capacity.

But Putin said Nord Stream 1's capacity could be reduced due to problems with other pumping units. He said Russian energy giant Gazprom was ready to fulfil its obligations on gas exports.

Gazprom cut exports through the route to 40% 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.

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.

Ukraine's western creditor governments meanwhile urged bondholders to accept Kyiv's request for a two-year delay on its debt payments and said they would suspend payments owed to them.

The Russian-installed administration in the partially occupied Ukrainian region of Zaporizhzhia said Ukraine had conducted a drone strike on a nuclear power station there, but the reactor was undamaged. Reuters could not independently verify the report. Ukrainian officials had no immediate comment.