KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russia’s top diplomat said Moscow’s overarching goal in Ukraine is to liberate its people from its “unacceptable regime,” expressing the Kremlin’s war goals in some of the most blunt terms, while his troops bombarded the country with artillery barrages and air raids.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s comment comes amid Ukraine’s efforts to resume grain exports from its Black Sea ports, something that would help alleviate global food shortages, according to a new deal tested by a Russian attack on Odessa over the weekend.
Speaking to envoys at an Arab League summit in Cairo late Sunday, Lavrov accused Kiev and his Western allies of spreading propaganda designed to ensure Ukraine “becomes Russia’s eternal enemy.”
“We are determined to help the people of Eastern Ukraine free themselves from the burden of this absolutely unacceptable regime,” he said. Apparently suggesting that Moscow’s war goals extend beyond Ukraine’s industrial Donbas region to the east, Lavrov said: “We will certainly help the Ukrainian people get rid of the regime, which is absolutely anti-people and anti-historic .”
Lavrov’s comments followed his warning last week that Russia plans to maintain control of wider areas outside eastern Ukraine, including the Kherson and Zaporizhzhya regions of the south, and will make greater gains elsewhere.
Lavrov’s comments contrasted sharply with the Kremlin’s line at the start of the war, when it repeatedly emphasized that Russia was not trying to overthrow President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government, even as Moscow’s troops approached Kiev. Russia later withdrew from the entire capital and turned its attention to conquering the Donbas. The fighting is now in its sixth month.
Lavrov argued that Russia was ready to negotiate a deal to end hostilities in March, when Kiev changed tack and declared its intention to defeat Russia on the battlefield. He said the West has encouraged Ukraine to keep fighting.
“The West insists that Ukraine should not enter into negotiations until Russia is defeated on the battlefield,” Lavrov said.
It was not yet clear when grain shipments would resume following the signing of agreements by Russia and Ukraine with the United Nations and Turkey on Friday. The deals are intended to pave the way for the shipment of millions of tons of much-needed Ukrainian grain, as well as the export of Russian grain and fertilizer.
Ukraine’s Deputy Infrastructure Minister Yuri Vaskov said the first shipment of grain is scheduled for this week.
While Russia was accused of allegations that the weekend attack on the port of Odessa amounted to breaking the deal, Moscow insisted the strike would not affect grain shipments.
During a visit to the Republic of the Congo on Monday, Lavrov reiterated Russian military claims that the attack targeted a Ukrainian naval boat and a depot containing Western-supplied Harpoon anti-ship missiles. He said the attack took place in the military section of the port a “significant distance” from the grain terminal.
“We have not created any barriers to the supply of grain 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 African support for Russia, especially for any upcoming UN votes.
In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow has no interest in stopping all gas supplies to Europe and that recent restrictions on power are “simply the consequences of restrictions imposed by the Europeans, and the Europeans themselves are suffering from these limits.”
“Russia is a responsible gas supplier, and no matter what anyone says, the European Commission, in the European capitals, in the US, Russia is and remains a country that guarantees Europe’s energy security to a high degree,” Peskov said.
Hours later, the Russian 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.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s presidential office said at least two civilians were killed and ten injured in Russian shelling in the past 24 hours on Monday.
In the eastern region of Donetsk, the focal point of the Russian offensive, Russian artillery struck the towns of Avdiivka, Kramatorsk and Kostiantynivka. An air raid on Bakhmut damaged at least five houses.
“The Russians are applying the scorched earth tactics all over Donbas. They are firing from the ground and from the air to wipe out entire cities,” Donetsk Governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said in television comments.
The Russians also hit the Kharkov region. In Chuhuiv, workers searched for people trapped under the rubble after 12 rockets hit the city before dawn and damaged a cultural center, school and other infrastructure, authorities said.
“All these years, our residents, our society, have created and created comfortable living conditions,” said Mayor Galina Minayeva. “And now the enemy is destroying all this, killing children, peaceful inhabitants. It is very difficult to describe all this.”
Kharkiv Governor Oleh Sinyehubov said: “It looks like a deadly lottery if no one knows where the next strike will come.”
In other developments, Russia said it has thwarted an attempt by Ukrainian military intelligence to entice Russian military pilots to hand over their planes to Ukraine.
The Russian Federal Security Service, the successor to the KGB, said Ukrainians have offered Russian pilots cash and European Union citizenship.
In a video released by the FSB, a man claiming to be a Ukrainian intelligence officer offered a pilot $2 million to surrender his plane during a mission over Ukraine.
Russian state television claimed that Western spy agencies assisted the Ukrainians in the attempt. The Russian claims could not be independently verified.