Russia’s ambitions in Ukraine now stretch beyond the country’s eastern territories, the country’s foreign minister said Wednesday, a departure from the Kremlin’s earlier claims that it is not waging a war of imperial expansion.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told RIA Novosti, the Russian state news agency, that Russia’s territorial aims have changed to include a swath of the south as peace negotiations have failed and the situation on the ground has changed.
“This is an ongoing process,” said Mr. Lavrov, adding that Russia’s objectives could expand further if Western countries deliver more long-range weapons to Ukraine.
He specifically mentioned the HIMARS multiple rocket launchers that the United States has delivered to Ukraine and which have been instrumental in limiting Russian advances by hitting faraway targets, including munitions depots and key infrastructure facilities.
The arrival of a dozen of multiple rocket launchers appears to have slowed down Russia’s advance, allowing Ukraine to strike ammunition dumps and other strategic targets deep behind the front lines.
On Wednesday, the United States promised to deliver another four of the launchers. Ukraine has also stepped up attacks in Kherson Province, in the south, in a possible prelude to a large-scale counteroffensive, which would shift the dynamic of the war.
Russian forces currently control the entire Luhansk Province in the east and have begun a slow-moving offensive to seize the neighboring Donetsk Province, though they made little progress in the last two weeks. Russian troops have also seized the coastal region in the south all the way to the Dnipro River.
When he announced the start of the invasion of Ukraine in a speech in February, President Vladimir V. Putin claimed that Russia did not intend to occupy the country or “impose anything on anyone by force” but rather to “demilitarize” Ukraine.
But Mr. Lavrov said on Wednesday that Moscow now is also eying the Kherson and Zaporizka Provinces of Ukraine’s south, parts of which are occupied by the Russian forces, as well as “a number of other territories.”
The Ukrainian government and its Western allies have dismissed Mr. Putin’s rationale as pretext. Ukrainian officials have said that Russia’s aims have been clear from the outset and remain unchanged: the destruction of Ukraine as a sovereign nation and the annihilation of Ukrainian culture, evidenced by Russia’s unrelenting bombardment, naval blockade on Ukrainian ports and the deportation of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians to Russia.
After Russia failed to swiftly capture Ukraine’s capital of Kyiv in the initial stage of the war, Moscow’s narrative began to shift, with Mr. Putin citing the protection of pro-Russia breakaway republics in the country’s eastern Donbas region as the Kremlin’s main aim.
Since scaling back its publicly stated ambitions, Moscow redirected the bulk of its combat forces to a grueling campaign aimed at claiming territory in the east. After seizing control of Luhansk Province, which with neighboring Donetsk Province makes up the Donbas, Russia has not made any notable gains in more than two weeks.
The Russian government has been under pressure from pro-war military bloggers, an increasingly vocal group that has criticized the army’s performance and kept pushing the Kremlin to expand its territorial ambitions.