Russia is aiming to take full control of southern Ukraine as well as the eastern Donbas region, a senior Russian commander says.
Maj Gen Rustam Minnekayev was quoted in state media as saying that goal would allow Moscow to form a land bridge to Crimea, which it annexed in 2014.
He also said it would give Moscow access to the Russian-backed separatist region of Transnistria in Moldova.
Transnistria is a small region that borders Ukraine’s west.
It is unclear if Gen Minnekayev’s comments were officially sanctioned by the Kremlin, but they were widely cited in Russian state media including the Interfax and Tass news agencies.
Russian defence officials told the BBC’s Steve Rosenberg that they were “looking into” the general’s comments, which – if confirmed – offer the first insight into Russia’s potential plans in the coming weeks.
Meanwhile, a senior EU official told Reuters that Russia is likely to intensify its attacks in eastern Ukraine and along the southern coast in the coming days, adding that the next two weeks may be decisive in the war.
Moldova has summoned Moscow’s ambassador over the comments, which its foreign ministry described as “deeply concerning”.
A small Russian-speaking breakaway region, Transnistria borders Ukraine from the west. It claimed independence after the fall of the Soviet Union in a bloody conflict, but is not recognised internationally and officially remains part of Moldova.
A small detachment of around 1,500 Russian troops has been stationed in the region since 1995 as part of a truce agreement.
Gen Minnekayev, who is deputy commander of Russia’s central military district, was speaking at a military event in the Sverdlovsk region on Friday.
“Control over the south of Ukraine is another way out to Transnistria, where there are also facts of oppression of the Russian-speaking population,” Gen Minnekayev said.
Mr Putin made similar claims, without providing evidence, about alleged discrimination against Russian speakers in Ukraine before launching the invasion on 24 February.
Ukraine’s defence ministry denounced Gen Minnekayev’s comments as Russian “imperialism”.
And the country’s President Volodymyr Zelensky responded to them in his regular overnight address. “The Russian invasion of Ukraine was intended only as a beginning, then they want to capture other countries,” he claimed.
He earlier said Russia was planning on holding a series of sham independence referendums in occupied regions to create a series of pro-Russian breakaway states.
“If they ask you to fill out some questionnaires, leave your passport data somewhere, you should know this is not to help you,” he warned.
“This is aimed to falsify the so-called referendum on your land if an order comes from Moscow to stage such a show. This is the reality. Be careful.”
A spokesperson for the Ukrainian defence ministry said that referendums were planned in Kherson and occupied areas around Zaporizhzhia in the coming weeks.(BBC)