Russia's unclear objectives complicate peace negotiations, Irish professor warns

Russia's Unclear Objectives Complicate Peace Negotiations, Irish Professor Warns Russia's Unclear Objectives Complicate Peace Negotiations, Irish Professor Warns
Amid Russia's preparations for a major assault in eastern Ukraine, the Kremlin's unclear objectives and aggressive narrative will make any peace agreement difficult, according to a professor of post-Soviet politics. Photo: Getty Images
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James Cox

Amid Russia's preparations for a major assault in eastern Ukraine, the Kremlin's unclear objectives and aggressive narrative will make any peace agreement difficult, according to a professor of post-Soviet politics.

Donnacha Ó Beacháin is Professor of Politics at the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University (DCU). He has written extensively on post-Soviet Eastern Europe.

Professor Ó Beacháin told that part of the issue with Russia's invasion of Ukraine has been unclear objectives from the beginning, as president Vladimir Putin had expected a quick and total victory after launching the invasion on February 24th.

"All of that has led to a situation where the Russians have had to redefine what their objectives are. They’ve been saying all along that everything is going according to plan, but they never outlined what the plan was from the beginning, using very vague phrases like ‘denazification’ and 'demilitarisation’.


"They lost seven generals and perhaps 15,000 troops in five weeks so that is completely unsustainable, and I think it is because of that more than anything else that they are now re-focusing their efforts on the Donbas region."

He added: "I listened to a recent interview with Dmitry Peskov, a senior Kremlin spokesman, and he was still parroting the line that they had withdrawn from Kyiv as a gesture of goodwill... to facilitate peace negotiations. In fact, it’s quite clear this was a retreat. When I say redefine victory, what I think they’re going to do is sell this in any way that will appeal to a Russian audience.

"They’ll say: 'Stage one is over, we have degraded the Ukrainian military infrastructure, now we’re going to phase two, the complete liberation of the people of Donetsk and Luhansk who are under Nazi genocidal attack, these are our people, we will defend them’.

"That’s why Mariupol is so important, it's located at the Sea of Azov which goes into the Black Sea, a port which before the war had between 400,000 and 500,000 people, and it’s in the region of Donetsk.

"The best of the Ukrainian military is already in the region. It wasn’t expected that the war would be multi-directional even though some intelligence did suggest that. The Ukrainians have their best people in Donbas, and it’s one of the reasons the Russians have made very modest advances.


A Ukrainian multiple rocket launcher BM-21 "Grad" shells Russian troops' position, near Lugansk, in the Donbas region, on April 10th, 2022. Photo: Anatolii Stepanov/AFP via Getty Images

"Russia already had troops in Crimea and Donbas, so they should have been well-placed to expand territorially, but they haven’t really done very well at all, and I think that’s why they’re looking to consolidate their efforts in Donbas.

"Last week, Putin signed a decree mobilising 134,500 troops, conscripts, so there’s no end in sight it seems. The Ukrainian government has asked people in the region to vacate if they can, the fear is that we’re going to see a major escalation in the Donbas region."

While Russian focus has now shifted to the Donbas region, Prof Ó Beacháin stressed that it is difficult to predict what their next move will be.

He cited the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, which the Kremlin denied responsibility for right up until it was completed.

"They’ve certainly left the option open to make a new effort against Kyiv when they feel they are finished in Donbas. That’s a major concern, that instead of going for simultaneous attacks, which was the initial plan, that they are now going for sequential attacks."

Prof Ó Beacháin cited Putin's early speeches, which may make it difficult to row back his goals in Ukraine. He also cited some "worrying" pieces in Russian state media.


Once you’ve created such a spectre it’s very difficult to settle for anything less than complete annihilation

"They are a prisoner of their own rhetoric, ideology and bombast in a way. Putin’s speech at the beginning was an amazing speech in many respects, when he made direct comparisons between the desire of countries in the region to join Nato and Nazi expansion under Hitler during the early 1940s towards Russia. He has created this as an existential threat to Russia. Once you’ve created such a spectre it’s very difficult to settle for anything less than complete annihilation.

"There have been some very worrying pieces published in Russian state media where people have said ‘there can no longer be a Ukraine after this war, there has to be not only denazification, there has to be a de-Ukrainianisation'.

"The way it's portrayed is 'we thought at the beginning this was a kindred people who were essentially enslaved by a small number of Nazis at the top of society, but now we’ve come in and seen the resistance, we realise Nazism is much more embedded in Ukrainian society than we first thought, therefore Ukrainian society is the enemy'.


"This is a very old feature of Kremlin politics in the region, the classic object of setting up a puppet government," he explained.

"This is essentially what happened in 1945 when puppet governments were set up in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Romania, according to the Kremlin narrative these were liberated countries who had decided of their own volition to ally themselves with the Kremlin, when we know that these were completely artificial regimes which had little domestic support. When they had the first chance of a real choice in 1989 they all left, now they’re all in the EU and Nato, that’s what Putin wants to prevent. He wants to prevent Ukraine going down the path of those countries that are lost forever to the Russian sphere of influence."

However, Prof Ó Beacháin also said there is a possibility Putin will attempt to portray taking the Donbas region, and Ukraine's recent promise that it will not join Nato, as a victory.

"Putin has 83 per cent behind him according to independent opinion polls. If he tried to present a victory, those outside of Russia wouldn't see it that way, but he might be able to pull it off. He may redefine what the goal was and say it was always his intent to ‘save’ the people of Donbas and ‘I have done that, and I always intended for Ukraine to be a neutral state unaligned to Nato’... and the Ukrainians have now said they’re willing to not join Nato as part of a comprehensive peace agreement."

EU membership


Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy has appealed for Ukraine's request to join the European Union to be expedited, and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen visited Kyiv last week, where she presented him with paperwork to begin the process.

Prof Ó Beacháin feels EU membership could be even more significant for Ukraine than Nato membership.

"Ukraine first asked to join in 2008 and Nato has consistently said no, particularly Germany, France, those kinds of players, despite the fact that Eastern European countries were in favour along with the US.

"It was never likely Ukraine was going to join Nato in the foreseeable future. Ukraine has given up the aspiration to join Nato, which is in its constitution along with an EU membership aspiration. Membership of the EU would be a much deeper relationship; it’s a relationship that is economic, political, cultural and is based on shared values, and it increasingly has obligations that might go into the realm of defence as well.

I think a prosperous, stable democratic Ukraine within the European Union would be far more subversive to the Kremlin than Nato membership

"So I think a prosperous, stable democratic Ukraine within the European Union would be far more subversive to the Kremlin than Nato membership.

"Their narrative has been that Ukraine is a failed state, it’s important for the Kremlin because if Ukraine is seen as a failed state, for the ordinary Russian there is nothing to emulate. However, if Ukraine joins the EU, and enjoys the benefits of being in the EU, that could send a signal to ordinary Russians."

Low morale has been a problem within the Russian army, who are fighting for unclear objectives.

Prof Ó Beacháin said this has been a factor in the "ferocious" Ukrainian defence so far as they are fighting for the very existence of their nation.

However, he pointed out that this could also lead to more atrocities like the horrific scenes of civilian massacre from Bucha that shocked the world.

A dog wanders around destroyed houses and Russian military vehicles, in Bucha. Photo; AP/Press Association Images

"As they become more desperate and hostile to the Ukrainian population the danger of ever-greater atrocities increases. Russian soldiers were told many things, some didn’t even know they were going to Ukraine, many were conscripts, they were told they were going to liberate Ukrainians, and they were met with ferocious resistance from ordinary Ukrainians.

"Drunk on this ideology that they’re confronting a nation of neo-Nazis, they will see every ordinary Ukrainian as a legitimate target. Ordinary Ukrainians are doing what they can to subvert the Russian military effort, that's the nature of guerrilla warfare. From a Russian perspective every person, civilian or otherwise, is a potential enemy and I think that will potentially lead to ever greater acts of depravity and that is a great concern. We’ve seen in the areas they’ve vacated that there are no limits to what this army will do. When you look at how they organise themselves in places like Mariupol, cutting off energy, water, electricity, it’s a medieval form of warfare, of attacking a people not an army."

Having lived in the region for a time, Prof Ó Beacháin said he had heard a lot of stories about the inherent brutality of the Russian army.

The Russian army has a lot of money behind it, but it’s not particularly disciplined

"The Russian army has a lot of money behind it, but it’s not particularly disciplined. I lived in the region for many years and I heard a lot of stories of really brutal initiation rituals, hundreds of people would take their own lives every year because of what they had experienced in the Russian army. It’s a brutal regime they go through, and that brutalises them when they go into battle.

"In previous wars, even Georgia in 2008, there was basic indiscipline like looting houses, taking away TVs and video recorders and bringing them back as booty. That’s how wars were conducted centuries ago, but that’s not how a disciplined, professional army operates. That’s what Ukrainians are facing right now.

"The Estonian prime minister, Kaja Kallas, put it very well recently when she described the scenes Russia had vacated when she said 'it’s not a battlefield, it’s a crime scene'. It’s vital that we document what happened and that those who were responsible, from the top echelons but also those ordinary soldiers who can’t be given carte blanche to engage in war crimes. Finding the mechanisms to bring them to account will be the big challenge when this war eventually subsides."

He said scenes like Bucha will set back any hopes of peace negotiations, adding that the Kremlin does not appear to be serious about them in any case.

Broken deals

Prof Ó Beacháin also pointed out that Ukrainians will have a hard time believing any peace agreement will be honoured, given past deals that were broken.

"Unfortunately, I fear we may have the worst ahead of us when you look at the consolidation of forces around Donbas, there’s no evidence of a genuine desire on the behalf of the Kremlin to negotiate a peace agreement.

"I suspect they will try and get the territory they want, at a minimum Donetsk and Luhansk, perhaps the corridor that connects Donbas to Crimea. When they have acquired the territory they want in the south-east the Russians might go back to Kyiv, or we may see movement towards a peace agreement, until that point it will be difficult to get them to be serious about a negotiated settlement of any kind.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (C) applauds Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (L) who appears on a screen as he speaks in a video conference to the European Parliament. Photo: John Thys/AFP via Getty Images

"It can only make it more difficult from a human, emotional level, you can see etched on president Zelenskiy’s face; the weariness, the man seems to have aged years in the last six weeks, when he was speaking to the European Parliament the translator even broke down.

"There will have to be a settlement, but atrocities won’t make it any easier, and especially if the Russians refuse to modify their demands, they give mixed messages about their real intentions, saying one thing and doing another.

"That’s another reason it will be difficult to come to a settlement because Ukrainians will think 'what is it worth?' There have been settlements before. In 1994, Ukrainians gave up their nuclear weapons which they inherited from the Soviet Union, the third-largest nuclear arsenal in the world, and they voluntarily gave it up in return for a security guarantee from Russia that they would respect the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine. That was backed up by guarantees from the UK and US.

"After that Ukraine was a militarily non-aligned, neutral state and that didn’t save them from being attacked and invaded in 2014, so they would realistically and justifiably ask now what is any agreement worth?

"That’s why the Ukrainians are looking for a range of states, including Ireland, to guarantee Ukraine’s security going forward in the case of any agreement."

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