Is Russia Expanding Its Goals in Ukraine?

On July 20, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Russia’s war aims had been altered and that Russia might have to push further west. "Now the geography is different," he said, "it’s far from being just the DPR and LPR [Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics], it’s also "Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions and a number of other territories."

Is Russia expanding its war goals? Are Lavrov’s comments "confessing dreams to grab more Ukrainian land," as Ukraine’s foreign minister said?

Western commentators confidently declare that Lavrov’s comments reveal war aims larger than those declared at the start of the war. Reuters’ headline announces that "Russia declares expanded war goals," and The New York Times’ headline declares that "Russia Signals That It May Want a Bigger Chunk of Ukraine." That’s not surprising, though, the Times continues, because "Western officials have always scoffed at Moscow’s claims that its invasion is anything less than an act of expansion."

Their interpretations display a confidence that ignores that they do not know what is going on in Putin’s mind. One reasonable component of interpreting Lavrov’s and Putin’s words would be to listen to what they have actually said.

Though the Times repeats the accepted Western accusation that Putin has ambitions to expand Russia and recreate the Soviet Union, there is no evidence, John Mearsheimer, has argued to support that accusation.

Though western commentators often quote Putin’s 2005 line that "Whoever does not miss the Soviet Union has no heart," they frequently amputate it from the line that follows: "Whoever wants it back has no brain."

Though we cannot know Putin’s thoughts, we might at least consider and analyze his words. And he seems never to have expressed a goal of conquering or absorbing Ukraine. "There is no evidence in the public record," Mearsheimer argues, "that Putin was contemplating, much less intending to put an end to Ukraine as an independent state and make it part of greater Russia when he sent his troops into Ukraine on February 24th."

Instead, when Putin announced Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Mearshemeir reminds, he said, "It is not our plan to occupy Ukrainian territory." Then, seemingly articulating his goals, he added, "Russia cannot feel safe, develop, and exist while facing a permanent threat from the territory of today’s Ukraine."

Putin listed a number of goals at the start of the invasion, including the protection of ethnic Russians in the Donbas. The primary goal that he demanded repeatedly was that Ukraine neither became a member of NATO nor a base for NATO "weapons systems that threaten us in close vicinity to Russian territory.”

The military focus on the Donbas region was sufficient to keep NATO from Russia’s border and to keep weapons out of the vicinity from which they could threaten Russian territory. But that changed when the US sent Ukraine long range High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) that carry missiles with a range of 50 miles and have the capacity to strike Russian territory.

Western reports of Lavrov’s July 20 announcement omit his crucial line that "If Ukraine receives long-range weapons from Western countries, then the geographical tasks of the special operation of the Russian troops will change." Lavrov did not say there was a change or expansion in Russia’s goals: he said the same task remains: "The President said very clearly, as you quoted him – denazification, demilitarization in the sense that there are no threats to our security, military threats from the territory of Ukraine , this task remains."

The task is the same. The geography has changed because, with the US insertion of long range HIMARS into Ukrainian territory, the Donbas is no longer wide enough to ensure that there are no "weapons systems that threaten us in close vicinity to Russian territory.”

Lavrov’s message is not new. In early June, Lavrov warned that "the longer the range of weapons you supply, the farther away the line from where [Ukraine] could threaten the Russian Federation will be pushed." Lavrov’s July message reiterated the same point. Russia’s war aims may have to extent west "Because we cannot allow the part of Ukraine that Zelensky will control or whoever replaces him to have weapons that will pose a direct threat to our territory. . . ."

The US has not only inserted those weapons into Ukraine. According to the same New York Times article that says Russia has expanded its goals and wants a bigger chunk of Ukraine, "American military officials said Wednesday that they planned to send four more of the M142 HIMARS multiple-rocket launch vehicles, as well as more of the guided rockets they fire and more guided artillery ammunition."

Ukrainian officials have also suggested that those US supplied HIMARS will be used against targets in Crimea. Vadym Skibitskyi, representative of the Chief Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine, said on July 16 that both Crimea and Russia’s Black Sea Fleet are targets.

The huge majority of Russians and Crimeans see Crimea as Russian territory. No Russian government could tolerate an attack on Crimea or the loss of Crimea. An attack on Crimea would be seen by Putin – or by any Russian administration – as an attack on Russia. Sending Ukraine HIMARS that can reach Russia and Ukraine’s statement that they can be used to strike Crimea mean that the geography has changed and that the line from where Ukraine could threaten Russia might be moved further west.

Former president and current Deputy Chairman of the Russian Security Council Dmitry Medvedev said on July 17 that if Ukraine attacks Crimea, the Ukrainian leadership "will be faced with a doomsday, very quick and tough, immediately."

Though Western commentators have insisted that Lavrov’s comments signal a change and expansion of Russia’s goals in Ukraine, it is impossible to know Putin’s thoughts. Putin’s and Lavrov’s words suggest another possible interpretation. The goal has not changed: only the geography for accomplishing the goal has changed. And that geography has been changed by the insertion by the US of long range HIMARS rocket systems into Ukraine.

Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.