LONDON - 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 its war goals have expanded in the past five months.
In an interview with state news agency RIA Novosti, 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 territories well beyond the Donbas that Russian forces have wholly or partly seized.
"This process is continuing logically and persistently," he said, adding that 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", Lavrov 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.
The foreign minister is the most senior figure to speak openly of Russia's war goals in territorial terms, nearly five months after President Vladimir Putin launched his invasion with a denial that Russia intended to occupy its neighbour.
Putin 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.
After being beaten back in an initial attempt to take the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, Russia's defence ministry said on March 25 that the first phase of its "special military operation" was complete and it would now focus on "achieving 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.
(Writing by Mark Trevelyan; Editing by Catherine Evans)