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Ukrainian president |Volodymyr Zelensky sits at a long table flanked by representatives from several other countries including Switzerland.
EPA-EFE/Michael Buholzer/pool

Ukraine summit fails to provide a path to peace for Kyiv and its allies

Was the the first so-called “Summit on Peace in Ukraine”, held in Switzerland on June 15 to 16, a failure? Certainly not, if you listen to the fairly upbeat reactions of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky and his western backers. And, to be fair, the summit has enabled Zelensky to keep Russia’s war against Ukraine high on the international agenda.

But by most other counts, the outcome of the summit was disappointing. International participation was lacklustre, with only 92 of the reportedly invited 160 states and international organisations turning up. The final communique fell short of expectations in terms of content and signatories.

All this raises serious questions about the future of a peace process that excludes Russia. It also lacks buy-in from China, which was absent in Switzerland, and from other key countries including Brazil, India, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa and the United Arab Emirates. These all attended but did not sign up to the final communique.

Agenda limited

On the agenda were three issues addressed in the Ukrainian president’s 2022 peace plan: nuclear safety, food security and humanitarian issues. But the final communique did not reference Zelensky’s plan, let alone his core demand for a complete withdrawal of Russian troops, and only attracted the support of 84 of the delegations attending. Perhaps even more importantly, no agreement was reached on when to hold a follow-up meeting.

One of the problems is likely to have been the insistence by Kyiv and its western allies that Zelensky’s was the only peace plan on the table. By default this prevented any discussion of at least seven other third-party proposals.

These include schemes sponsored by China, Brazil, Indonesia and the Vatican. There were also proposals put forward in June last year by a group of African states led by South Africa, as well as a Saudi-backed deal proposed in August 2023. Nor was the recent joint proposal by China and Brazil explored.

All these proposals are non-western initiatives primarily focused on achieving a ceasefire. Such action continues to be seen by Ukraine and its western partners as favouring Russia. A ceasefire would effectively freeze the war at its current frontlines and, at least temporarily, would accept Russia’s territorial gains on the ground, including the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Russia ascendant

Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin has doubled down on his territorial demands. As delegates made their way to Switzerland for the peace conference, the Russian president released a set of ramped-up demands.

Kyiv must not only cede to Russia all territory occupied by Russian troops in Ukraine, but the entirety of the four regions Russia annexed in September 2022 when it held rigged referendums in Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. Under Putin’s scenario, Russia would also get Crimea.

This is a far cry from the key point of Zelensky’s original plan and the March 2022 UN resolution, which called for a complete Russian withdrawal and the restoration of Ukraine’s full territorial integrity. An estimated 58% of Ukrainians still support ruling out any compromise on this issue, down from the more impressive over 80% in February 2023.

The conference’s final communique was meant to reflect a similar position. But what emerged was, at best, a very watered down version that referred to the UN charter and the principles of territorial integrity and sovereignty of all states, including Ukraine.

By not explicitly demanding a Russian withdrawal and referencing general principles of international law, it could be argued Ukraine and its western partners tried to make the final declaration more palatable for others to support. The wording leaves more room for compromise in future negotiations between Russia and Ukraine and does not completely rule out territorial concessions by Kyiv.

Russian president Vladimir Putin with his entourage walks around a factory making drones.
Vladimir Putin, seen here inspecting a weapons plant in Yakutsk, has doubled down on his territorial demands in Ukraine. EPA-EFE/Pavel Bednyakov/ Sputnik/Kremlin pool

But even this watered-down version failed to attract the unanimous support of the 100 attending delegations. The reason for this failure is fairly obvious: the collective west – essentially the G7, Nato and the EU – has so far been steadfast in support of Ukraine and of Zelensky’s peace plan, and only of Zelensky’s peace plan.

Western support incoherent

That support was reconfirmed most recently in the leaders’ communique from the weekend’s G7 summit in Puglia, southern Italy. This explicitly noted the G7’s collective “support for the key principles and objectives of President Zelensky’s Peace Formula”. It does, however, indicate a softening of the western message in comparison to the G7 foreign ministers’ statement of November 2023 that said peace wasn’t possible without Russia’s unconditional withdrawal.

But if anything, the current approach by Ukraine and the west has, at best, some way to go to adjust to the new reality. Russia’s position on the battlefield and within international diplomacy is, for now, strong enough to withstand western and Ukrainian demands for an end to the war.

At worst, the current approach has led Ukraine into a dead end. Western support still is more rhetorical than real. The US president, Joe Biden, did not go to Switzerland at all despite being in Europe for the G7. In fact, Canada’s premier, Justin Trudeau was the only G7 leader to stay for both days of the conference.

At the same time, momentum, among the rest of the world seems to be gathering behind the recent Chinese-Brazilian peace proposal.

Even more importantly, perhaps, Ukraine is still suffering on the battlefield. The slow pace of western military aid and the restrictions attached to it continue to hamper Ukrainian defences. And the country’s new conscription law is deeply divisive and supported by fewer than half of the population in a country short of soldiers. Meanwhile Ukraine’s power grid has been devastated by Russian attacks.

The outcome of the Swiss peace summit, therefore, is hardly the morale booster that Ukrainians require at this time. Instead, it should be taken as a signal in Kyiv and other western capitals that their current strategy offers no clear pathway to a just and secure peace that – at present – looks out of Ukraine’s reach on the battlefield.

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