Russia's stated war aims begin catching up with reality

By Kevin Liffey

LONDON (Reuters) - The speaker of Russia's lower house of parliament said on Tuesday that Ukraine had become a "terrorist state" and was doing everything to ensure that Russia did not stop its invasion at the borders of the eastern Donbas region as advertised.

The remark by Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin marked an escalation of Russian war rhetoric but ignored the fact that Moscow's forces already occupy large parts of southern Ukraine as well.

It suggested that Moscow, fresh from seizing the last parts of Ukraine's Luhansk region on Sunday, might be preparing once more to expand its stated war objectives, which it reined back a month into the invasion after an assault on the capital Kyiv and an advance on the second largest city Kharkiv were beaten back.

It said then that it would focus on "liberating" the Luhansk and Donetsk regions that make up the Donbas region, where Russian proxies have declared "people's republics" - the LPR and DPR - that Moscow recognised as independent days before invading Ukraine on Feb. 24.

Moscow said it was defending the region's Russian-speakers from persecution by nationalists and "neo-Nazis" - an allegation dismissed by Kyiv as a baseless pretext for an imperial-style land grab.

By calling Ukraine a "terrorist state" and a "criminal regime", Volodin was advancing an argument that could potentially be used as a justification for a broader assault, perhaps on Kyiv again, or an attempt to topple the government.

"They themselves are doing everything to ensure that our troops do not stop at the borders of the LPR and DPR," he told the Duma, according to its website.

The RIA Novosti news agency quoted Andrey Marochko, a commander of the LPR's forces, as saying the region would not be safe from missiles unless Ukrainian forces were pushed back 300 km (186 miles) - "as far as Kyiv province".

Russia has a track record of shifting its stated aims after the fact, as it did in 2014 when it belatedly acknowledged that the anonymous forces that had seized Ukraine's Crimean peninsula were indeed Russian, or this year when it denied planning to invade Ukraine until the moment its forces crossed the border.

Also on Tuesday, the head of the Russian-installed regional administration of occupied parts of southern Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia province openly acknowledged for the first time that grain from the region was being exported through Crimea.

The region borders Kherson province, most of which fell to Russian forces advancing from Crimea early in the war.

The state news agency TASS cited Yevgeny Balitsky as saying Russian agricultural traders and state firms were buying grain from the region's farmers, and that planned deals included sales to Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Russia has for weeks denied accusations from Kyiv that it is stealing the Ukrainian harvest.

There was another sign that Russia was preparing for a long war when the Duma passed two bills in their first reading that would allow the government to oblige firms to supply the military and make staff work overtime to support the invasion.

(Reporting by Kevin Liffey, editing by Mark Trevelyan and Mark Heinrich)