Russia appears to have reversed itself after the country’s top diplomat said Moscow’s overarching goal is to topple the government of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy as Russian artillery barrages and air strikes continue to pummel cities across Ukraine.
The remark from Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov comes amid Ukraine’s efforts to resume grain exports from its Black Sea ports, something that would help ease global food shortages, under a new deal tested by a Russian strike on Odesa over the weekend.
Speaking to envoys at an Arab League summit in Cairo late Sunday, Lavrov said Moscow is determined to help Ukrainians “liberate themselves from the burden of this absolutely unacceptable regime.”
Lavrov accused Kiev and “its Western allies” of spouting propaganda intended to ensure that Ukraine “becomes the eternal enemy of Russia.”
“Russian and Ukrainian people would continue to live together, we will certainly help Ukrainian people to get rid of the regime, which is absolutely anti-people and anti-historical,” he said.
Lavrov’s remarks contrasted sharply with the Kremlin’s line early in the war, when Russian officials repeatedly emphasized that they weren’t seeking to overthrow Zelenskyy’s government.
Lavrov argued that Russia was ready to negotiate a deal to end hostilities in March when Kyiv changed tack and declared its intention to rout Russia on the battlefield, adding that the West has encouraged Ukraine to keep fighting.
“The West insists that Ukraine must not start negotiations until Russia is defeated on the battlefield,” Lavrov said.
It was not yet clear when grain shipments would resume following Russia and Ukraine signing identical agreements with the United Nations and Turkey on Friday in Istanbul. The deals are aimed at clearing the way for the shipment of millions of tons of desperately needed Ukrainian grain, as well as the export of Russian grain and fertilizer.
The Kremlin insisted Monday that the attack on the port of Odesa over the weekend targeted military assets and would not affect grain shipping.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that the strike had to do “exclusively with the military infrastructure.”
“This is in no way related to the infrastructure involved in fulfilling the agreements and exporting grain. So this can’t and shouldn’t affect the start of the shipment process in any way,” Peskov said.
The Kremlin spokesman also said that Moscow has no interest in halting all gas supplies to Europe and that recent restrictions on the flow of Russian gas to European countries “are simply the consequences of restrictions the Europeans have imposed, and the Europeans themselves are suffering from these restrictions.”
“Russia is a responsible gas supplier, and no matter what anyone says, the European Commission, in European capitals, in the U.S., Russia has been and continues to be a country that to a large extent guarantees Europe’s energy security,” Peskov said.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s presidential office said Monday that at least two civilians were killed and another 10 were wounded in the latest Russian shelling during the last 24 hours.
In the eastern Donetsk region, the focus of the Russian offensive, Russian artillery struck Avdiivka, Kramatorsk and Kostiantynivka. An airstrike on Bakhmut damaged at least five houses.
“The Russians are using the scorched earth tactics across the entire Donbas, they fire from the ground and from the air to wipe off entire cities,” Donetsk Gov. Pavlo Kyrylenko said in televised remarks.
The Russians also struck the Kharkiv region. In the city of Chuhuiv, a Russian strike ruined the building of a local club and rescue workers removed several people from under the debris.
Kharkiv Gov. Oleh Sinyehubov denounced the attack as “senseless barbarity,” saying that “it looks like a deadly lottery when no one knows where the next strike will come and the entire region is dangerous for living.”
In the Dnipro region, a 10-year-old girl was wounded by shelling, and a 7-year-old child was wounded in the Russian shelling of the Mykolaiv region.
In other developments:
— Russia’s top domestic security agency said Monday it has thwarted an attempt by the Ukrainian military intelligence to entice Russian military pilots to surrender their combat jets to Ukraine.
The Federal Security Service (FSB), the KGB’s successor agency, said Monday that Ukrainians offered Russian pilots cash and European Union citizenship to persuade them to hijack their warplanes. In a video released by the FSB, a man purported to be a Ukrainian intelligence officer, is offering to pay a prospective defector pilot $2 million if he would surrender his plane during a combat mission over Ukraine.
Russian state television claimed that Western spy agencies assisted the Ukrainians in the effort. The Russian claims couldn’t be independently verified.