Bürgenstock: A High Altitude Summit-Lite

There are mountain summits and there are political summits. The June 15-16 Swiss organized “Peace Summit” on the Russia/Ukraine war at Bürgenstock at 1,128 meters (3,701 ft) in central Switzerland with leaders from over ninety countries was a bit of both, but neither attained a Sir Edmund Hillary conquering of Everest nor a Woodrow Wilson peace signing at Versailles.

Despite the title “Peace Summit,” expectations were not high; neither Russia nor China attended. President Biden couldn’t even do a drop by after the June 13-15 G/7 meeting in nearby Italy as he preferred heading home for a $30 million fundraiser in California. Vice President Harris, French President Macron and Japanese Prime Minister Kishida left after only a few hours. And the final results were not as dramatic as the spectacular alpine views from the venue’s luxury resort hotel overlooking Lake Lucerne.

Although announced as a “Peace Summit,” the Swiss government tried to play down expectations. “This is a conference on peace, not a peace conference,” Swiss Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis tempered in a statement before the meeting. But convening a “Peace Summit” and lowering expectations about achieving peace is an evident title/content error.

Swiss President Viola Amherd also tried to lower expectations; “[W]e will not sign a peace plan at this conference”, she acknowledged well before the meeting, but she added she hoped “there will be a second conference. We hope to start the process,” she said.

The “peace process” started well before Bürgenstock. Previous meetings to discuss technical ways to foster a peace process following the February 22, 2022, Russian invasion were held in Copenhagen (June 2023), Jeddah (August 2023), Malta (October 2023) and Davos (January 2024). Bürgenstock was the highest-level public meeting in the process.

Despite lowered expectations, what had the Swiss really hoped for in organizing a “Peace Summit”? At best, perhaps another successful breakthrough as in the 1985 Reagan/Gorbachev Geneva Summit which is considered a turning point in U.S./Soviet relations during the Cold War? Certainly not a repeat of the 2021 Biden/Putin Geneva Summit which turned out to be no more than a short 31/2-hour diplomatically minimum visit by the Russian president.

For despite the declared lower expectations, the Swiss made every effort to make the meeting summit-like. 160 invitations were sent out. One hundred delegations, including 92 state representatives were present. Swiss Foreign Minister Cassis went to China and India to convince the leaders of the importance of attending even without Russian presence. President Amherd personally encouraged Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to attend in vain.

Every attempt was made to have a diverse representation especially from the BRICS+. From the Global South, India, Brazil and South Africa were represented, but not at the highest level. Still, “The conference participation reflects a real diversity, we are far from merely a western meeting,” boasted the spokesperson for the Swiss foreign ministry.

A true summit would have had all the relevant parties present. The absence of Russia was clearly felt. “You don’t negotiate with your friends,” Celso Amorim, chief foreign policy adviser to the Brazilian president, said in an interview. “You negotiate with your adversaries.”

Without Russian presence, and in spite of the meeting’s official title, peace was also not directly on the meeting’s agenda. The Swiss organizers decided to work on peace through pieces, trying to avoid President Zelensky’s utopic 10-point peace plan (including restoring Ukraine’s entire territorial integrity) which he insists is non-negotiable The summit’s focus was on food security (Ukrainian grain exports), nuclear safety in the conflict zones, and humanitarian issues such as the exchange of prisoners of war and returning Ukrainian children unlawfully taken to Russia.

While the meeting’s agenda may seem minimal in terms of a ceasefire or eventual end to the 26-month-old war, Russia made considerable efforts to undermine the summit. On the Friday before the meeting opened, Russian President Putin offered his own ceasefire plan. In addition, Russia and China urged countries not to attend. According to Zelensky, “Russia is using Chinese influence on their region, using Chinese diplomats, to do everything to disrupt the peace summit,” he said at the Shangri-La security dialogue in Singapore before Bürgenstock. “Unfortunately, a big, independent country like China is being used as a tool by Russia,” Zelensky told reporters.

The importance of a follow-up meeting including Russia was evident at the summit. “It’s not a question of will Russia come on board, but when,” Cassis said. Earlier in the week, Ukrainian President Zelensky visited one of the possible hosts, Saudi Arabia, to hold talks with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Despite general agreement on the necessity of a follow-up to Bürgenstock, and despite several countries saying they were willing to host a follow-up, there was no agreement at the summit on when or where a follow-up would take place.

President Amherd said the meeting had created momentum. But there was a final common communiqué instead of a final declaration, an important diplomatic distinction. It was signed by only 84 countries and institutions; several important countries did not sign such as Brazil, India, Saudi Arabia and South Africa.

The final common communiqué emphasized the importance of respecting the Charter of the United Nations as well as various U.N. resolutions dealing with the crisis. All well and good. But the International Criminal Court has issued arrest warrants against President Putin for alleged war crimes. Who will invite Putin to a follow-up if he is supposed to be arrested outside Russia? How will calling for respecting the Charter and international law affect Putin and the Russian aggression in Ukraine?

Despite expectations of the first public “Peace Summit,” Russia’s aggression continues with all the catastrophic consequences for Ukraine and Ukrainians. It is impossible to judge if Bürgenstock was a positive step towards ending the hostilities, but there were no immediate results.

The high altitude summit-lite Bürgenstock was an immediate success for Swiss tourism. A local Geneva paper headlined: “These photos of Bürgenstock have gone around the world.” But lovely photos of the magnificent Swiss lakes and mountains will not bring desperately needed relief to Ukraine and Ukrainians.


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