Counterintuitive Steps Towards Peace in the Russia/Ukraine Conflict: “Bullshit Diplomacy” or Serious Negotiations?

Next month will mark two years since the Russian Federation invaded Ukraine. U.S. officials estimate at least 500,000 soldiers have died as well as tens of thousands of civilians. There has also been large-scale forced displacement. “As of December 5, there are 6.309 million Ukrainian refugees recorded globally of which 5.905 million are in Europe (including Russia),” according to ReliefWeb.  And the infrastructure damages in Ukraine are considerable. Despite the loss of lives, refugees, and infrastructure damage, neither the Ukrainians nor the Russians have sat down at the same table to try to reach some peaceful resolution. The Ukrainians have a peace formula that offers no concessions; the Russians appear unwilling to negotiate. But there have been some public meetings to try to end the fighting.

The Swiss, Ukrainians and several other countries have set in motion a series of small meetings to try to end the war without the Russian Federation’s participation. A major conference is also being discussed with doubtful Russian participation.

Are these serious negotiations or “bullshit diplomacy”? Are these a Swiss/Ukrainian attempt to present themselves as peace advocates while leaving Russia as the lone villain? Or are they strategic moves to get a peaceful solution moving that will prepare the way for Moscow’s participation and an eventual end to the fighting?

Swiss Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis admitted the difficulties; “One way or another, Russia will have to be included,” Swissinfo reported. “There will be no peace without Russia’s word,” Cassis added.

Before the recent World Economic Forum opened, Ukraine and Switzerland co-chaired in Davos the fourth meeting of National Security Advisors from 82 countries and international organizations to develop a peaceful solution to the conflict. Neither Russia nor China attended, just as they had not attended the three previous meetings in Copenhagen, Jeddah, and Malta.

The meetings all discussed Ukrainian President Zelensky’s ten-point peace formula.

The highlights of the formula are:

+ Withdrawal of Russian troops and cessation of hostilities

+ Implementation of the UN Charter and restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and the world order

+ Release of all prisoners and deported persons

During a bilateral meeting in Bern prior to Davos, the Swiss and Ukraine presidents announced a global summit for peace. Why Switzerland? As a neutral country with a long history of good offices and currently a non-permanent member of the Security Council, Switzerland has played a role in several conflict-related conferences. For example, as described by Frederic Kohler in a local Geneva newspaper, the Swiss hosted a conference in 1954 concerning Indochina as well as the 1962 Evian accords to end the Algerian war. In addition to conferences, there have been major summits in Geneva such as between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985 as well as Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden in 2021. Plus, Switzerland represents Russia in Georgia and Georgia in Russia.

The Russian reaction to an eventual peace conference has not been positive. “A so-called peace summit in Russia’s absence will be just another round of fruitless consultations that will not lead to any concrete results,” Vladimir Kokhlov, press attaché at the Russian Embassy in Bern told another local paper. “From our point of view, this is therefore a new attempt to impose Zelensky’s odious ‘peace formula’ which is in fact a series of ultimatums to Russia,” he declared. “Ultimatums cannot be used as a basis for opening negotiations.”

The fact that Switzerland joined European Union’s sanctions against Russia also played a negative role in Russia’s reaction. Swiss neutrality is also compromised, according to the Russian press attaché, by the fact that negotiations have dealt only with Ukraine’s proposal.

Was this mere Swiss grandstanding? An attempt to re-establish its Cold War image as an active neutral convenor seeing the increasing role of Qatar and others in the Israeli/Palestinian crisis? Is this merely “Bullshit diplomacy” as headlined in the Tribune de Genève? Merely inconsequential, diplomatic self-promotion “that will not lead to any concrete results”? Undaunted, the Swiss Foreign Minister will be traveling to China and India in the near future to try to get further support from leaders of the Global South.

It is noteworthy that the very tentative proposal for a “Global Summit for Peace” has no specifics concerning Ukraine and Russia. The resolution of other conflicts such as Israel-Hamas could be on the table.

The recent meeting in Davos as well as the proposed Global Summit pose obvious questions about how to end conflicts. The Advisors’ meetings are designed to stop the fighting and find a lasting peaceful settlement. For the moment, neither side seems prepared to negotiate to stop the fighting.

Are any meetings worthwhile without all the parties at the table? The fact that so many countries are participating in the Advisors’ meetings is encouraging. At least the Swiss and others are prepared to sit at a table to discuss even if all the belligerent parties are not present. Nonetheless,  it should be emphasized, there are no serious negotiations taking place with all concerned parties at the same table at this moment; an accurate reflection of our polarized times where declarations and force have replaced negotiations and compromise.

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.