A Ukraine Peace Conference Without Russia

While attention is focused on the Middle East and the possibilities for a cease-fire and a major regional peace plan, the Swiss government is convening a high-level meeting on the Russia/Ukraine conflict. On May 2, the Swiss government announced that “more than 160 delegations from all over the world were invited to join the first Peace Summit on Ukraine on 15-16 June 2024 at Bürgenstock” in central Switzerland. The invitations went out to countries from the Group of Seven, the Group of Twenty, the BRICS as well as three international organizations (U.N., OSCE, Council of Europe) and two religious organizations. As with previous smaller meetings in Copenhagen, Jeddah, Malta, and Davos, the Russian Federation was not invited, to what the former Russian President Dmitri Medvedev called “cuckoo Swiss initiatives.” (Moscow chastised Switzerland’s neutrality when it adopted EU sanctions against Russia.)

With Russia not invited, and China’s presence in doubt – even the Pope has yet to respond to the recent personal invitation by the Swiss president – is this Summit naïve Swiss optimism or a step to peace?

The loss of lives and the destruction of Ukrainian property cannot be understated. In its report of February 2024, The UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine said there have been 30,457 civilian casualties since February 2022. The number of soldiers killed varies depending on the sources, but they total in the hundreds of thousands. As far as infrastructure damage; according to a February 2024 joint Rapid Damage and Needs Assessment (RDNA3) report, as of December 2023, the total cost of reconstruction and recovery in Ukraine is $486 billion over the next decade.

Besides the loss of lives and destruction, accepted rules of major powers recognizing the territorial integrity of other states, especially those of political importance, were called into question by Russia’s aggression. Furthermore, no serious initiative to solve the crisis has come out of the U.N. in New York due to the veto blockage in the Security Council.

The United Nations system has felt the aftershocks of the invasion. If the Security Council is blocked, couldn’t and shouldn’t other U.N. institutions do something? The United Nations General Assembly did vote 93-24 to remove Russia from the Human Rights Council. But this small step and targeted sanctions have not stopped the fighting.

All of this background points to the inability of the “international community” to find a resolution to the conflict.

Switzerland has stepped into that void. It does not have the force of the entire Security Council which has “responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security,” but it is playing the role of convenor as a non-permanent member of the Security Council with its historic neutrality.

What is to be discussed at the Summit? According to the Swiss government, “The conference aims to establish a forum for a high-level dialogue on ways to achieve a comprehensive, just and lasting peace for Ukraine in accordance with international law and the UN Charter.” The Summit will certainly build on the previous meetings which discussed President Zelensky’s 10-point peace plan; a proposal that calls for the restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, the withdrawal of all Russian troops, the protection of food and energy supplies, nuclear safety, and the release of all Ukrainian prisoners of war.

That’s all fine from Kyiv’s perspective. What has been Moscow’s reaction to the Summit? “How can one talk about a serious conference with serious results without Russia’s participation?” President Putin’s spokesperson Dmitri Peskov asked. “We will not go to these so-called Swiss summits, neither to the first nor to the next,” declared a spokesperson for the Russian foreign ministry, Maria Zakharova.

Behind the scenes, several sources have indicated that Russia’s foreign ministry has been active in trying to convince countries not to attend. However, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Swiss officials told him “we understand that nothing can be solved without you…And once the plan was turned into a ‘collective product,’ Russia would be invited.” For the moment, that’s all here-say.

China could play a key role. Swiss Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis went to China in February to promote China’s participation at the conference. While China’s friendship with Russia seems closer and closer, no official word has come from Beijing about attending the Summit. It was certainly on the agenda during President Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Europe, The Chinese Ambassador in Paris was quoted in Le Monde as saying China would not attend if Russia was not present. The Summit should be on the agenda if President Putin visits China in May.

So while much attention is on the Middle East, the Swiss are trying to fill a void by convening a Ukraine Peace Summit. It could be another example of “bullshit diplomacy.” But do we want to see the killing and destruction continue? If we don’t, and no one else seems to be stepping up to the plate, then give the Swiss credit for their effort. The Swiss fully recognize the meeting’s limitations. “We will not sign a peace plan at the conference,” Swiss President Viola Amherd prudently stated in April when the Summit was announced. So high grades for the Swiss effort to stimulate negotiations. Grades for the results will have to wait.

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