Russia said on Wednesday that its military aims in Ukraine have expanded beyond the industrial Donbas region as its forces launched deadly barrages over the east and the south of the country.
The warning came as the European Commission called on EU countries to slash demand for natural gas to relieve dependence on Russian energy and the bloc agreed an embargo on Russian gold imports.
Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said in an interview that Moscow’s military was no longer “only” focused on wresting control of the east Ukraine regions of Luhansk and Donetsk, which have been partially controlled by pro-Moscow rebels for years.
“The geography is different now. It is not only about the DNR and LNR, but also the Kherson region, the Zaporizhzhia region and a number of other territories” he explained to state media.
Russian forces, since invading on February 24, have steadily advanced into each of those regions, wreaking destruction as they captured key cities and met fierce Ukrainian resistance.
Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba responded to Lavrov’s remarks by calling on allies of his country to ramp up sanctions on Moscow and speed arms deliveries to Kyiv.
“By confessing dreams to grab more Ukrainian land, Russian foreign minister (Sergei Lavrov) proves that Russia rejects diplomacy and focuses on war and terror,” he said.
Western arms a ‘direct threat’ to Russia
The steady progress of Russian troops in the east came after Moscow’s forces failed early in the invasion to capture the capital Kyiv and were pushed back from Ukraine’s second city Kharkiv.
But Russian artillery has pursued an almost constant shelling campaign on the eastern hub and strikes on Kharkiv on Wednesday killed three people, local officials said.
“There was a 13-year-old boy among them,” the regional governor Oleg Synegubov said in a statement on social media.
AFP journalists saw a man in shock kneeling over the body, which was covered by a blue sweatshirt and surrounded by shards of broken glass.
In the southern city of Nikopol, Russian shelling on a residential neighbourhood killed two people, authorities announced.
While the brunt of fighting in Ukraine in recent months has focused on Donbas, a Ukrainian counteroffensive in the south has slowly clawed back some Russian-held territory.
Ukraine, Ukrainian and military analysts credit Western-supplied long-range artillery with shifting battle field dynamics there and Russian officials have taken note.
Lavrov said Wednesday that Western arms deliveries to Ukraine had been a factor in Moscow’s decision to focus beyond the east and said its ambitions could expand even more if the shipments continued.
“We cannot allow the part of Ukraine that (President Volodymyr) Zelensky will control, or whoever replaces him, to have weapons that will pose a direct threat to our territory and the territory of those republics that have declared their independence,” Lavrov said, referring to Donetsk and Luhansk.
The head of the Ukrainian presidency’s office, Andriy Yermak said on Wednesday on social media that Kyiv was expecting more Himars – US precision rocket systems – to arrive “soon”.
Emergency energy plans
Lavrov also dismissed the idea of further peace talks with Ukraine, claiming that earlier rounds showed Kyiv was unwilling to negotiate in “earnest”.
“It doesn’t make any sense in the current situation,” he told state media. Russian and Ukrainian delegations are nevertheless expected in Istanbul in the coming days for more talks on unblocking Ukraine’s Black Sea grain exports.
Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Wednesday he hoped an agreement could be formulated “this week”.
Mykolaiv, the largest city under Ukrainian control near Russian-occupied Kherson and the southern front, has been shelled persistently since the beginning of the invasion.
The regional governor on Wednesday announced the city would be closed “for a day or two” in several weeks to process information on people believed to have been collaborating with Russian troops.
The announcement comes after Mr Zelensky in Kyiv fired several senior law enforcement officials – including the head of the security services – accusing their departments of having failed to crack down on spies and Kremlin sympathisers.
The West has responded to Russia’s invasion with several packages of damaging sanctions, which in turn has seen Russia cut natural gas supplies to the bloc, spurring a supply and cost crisis.
In its latest package of penalties Wednesday, the EU targeted gold exports and froze assets at Russia’s largest bank Sberbank.
Announcing an emergency plan Wednesday, the European Commission asked EU countries to reduce demand for natural gas by 15 per cent to secure sufficient storage ahead of winter.
EU commissioners have also asked member states to give Brussels special powers to impose compulsory energy rationing if Russia cuts off Europe’s gas lifeline
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