The Russian foreign minister has described the conquest of eastern Ukraine’s Donbass as an “unconditional priority”. This does not mean that the Kremlin’s other war aims are being pushed into the background.

Is there now an answer to the question that even the most self-confident Putin apologists have been struggling to solve since the beginning of the war? The Russian war of aggression against Ukraine is entering its 96th day, the question remains: What does the Russian President want, when could he be satisfied with what? So far, neither harsh sanctions against his country nor extensive arms deliveries to Ukraine have been able to dissuade the Kremlin ruler from his war course or to make concessions.

In this respect, an interview by his foreign minister in which he described taking the Donbass in eastern Ukraine as an “unconditional priority” is now causing people to sit up and take notice. It is about pushing the Ukrainian army and battalions out of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, which Moscow recognizes as independent states, Sergei Lavrov told the French broadcaster TF1. The Russian Foreign Ministry published the answers on its website on Sunday.

Lavrov has thus declared the capture of the region to be a key war objective. Is that already a concession, even an indication that Russia might back away from its other intentions in Ukraine?

“Sergei Lavrov’s statement only confirms what was decided a few weeks ago,” Gerhard Mangott dismisses. “The advances in northern Ukraine around Kyiv had to be broken off due to setbacks, so Russia is now concentrating on the Donbass in the east of the country,” said the political scientist and Russia expert from the University of Innsbruck to the star.

“The conquest of Donbass is an absolute minimum goal of the Russian side”

At the beginning of the war, Russia had formulated three central war goals:

However, the Russian campaign was marked by all kinds of setbacks, the offensive came to a standstill, and the troops had to retreat in many places. Accordingly, President Putin’s speech on “Victory Day” on May 9 was meek. Many observers assumed that the fanatical history and numbers freak Putin could use the historically charged day to sell his own warmongering as a success and escalate it even further. Although Putin celebrated his campaign, the war record was not a success story.

“The conquest of the Donbass is an absolute minimum goal for the Russian side,” says political scientist Mangott. After all, the alleged genocide of Russians in the region was one of the main justifications for the war. Even before Russian troops marched in, Putin spread the propaganda lie that there was a “genocide” against the Russian-speaking population in eastern Ukraine. “With this kind of war propaganda, Russia is practically obliged to take the Donbass,” says Mangott. Whether Russia will be able to fully capture Luhansk and Donetsk now depends on when new heavy weapons reach Ukraine.

Russia is unlikely to deviate from its other war aims

Losing is not an option for Putin, much to Ukraine’s chagrin: he needs a record to justify his war – which is already killing thousands of soldiers while Russian people suffer from sanctions and inflation.

Against this background, Lavrov’s statements that the only priority is the conquest of the Donbass should also be viewed with skepticism. In other areas of Ukraine where Russia is conducting a “military operation” — the Russian euphemism for aggressive war — residents must decide their own future, Lavrov said in the interview.

“What Lavrov doesn’t say, but is also one of the Russian war goals: not to give up the occupied areas in the south, i.e. Cherson and Zaporizhia, in order to defend the land bridge to Crimea,” Mangott analyses. “This is certainly Russia’s second important war aim.”

Lavrov’s statements are “cynical” anyway, says the Russia expert. Referendums are being prepared in Cherson and the occupied parts of Zaporizhia, the outcome of which is certain from the outset: that the areas will be annexed to the Russian Federation and become Russian state territory. In the Donbass, for the time being, people are sticking to the fiction that they will become independent states.

For weeks it has been possible to observe in Cherson how Russia wants to erase the identity of the city and its inhabitants by obviously drawing the next border after the annexation of Crimea – in heads, in wallets, in the cityscape, in the administration. The pro-Russian officials newly appointed in Kherson had already expressed their wish for the region to be annexed to Russia. There and in the Zaporizhia region, the authorities loyal to Moscow have now started issuing passports following a decree by Putin on simplified granting of Russian citizenship.

Will Putin be content with conquering the Donbass? “No,” says political scientist Mangott, “Russia will not give up its other war goals.” Russia is currently not in a position to make concessions or enter into negotiations. The country is still able to gain military ground. “Negotiations will probably only come about when both sides no longer expect any advantages on the battlefield – and both sides are a long way from that,” said Mangott. “In general, the positions of Russia and Ukraine are further apart than they have been since the beginning of the war.”