Ukraine Summit: A Path to Peace?

  • author, Sarah Rainsford
  • stock, Eastern Europe Correspondent
  • Report from Burgenstock, Switzerland

For two days, the cause of peace in Ukraine disturbed the peace of the Swiss highlands.

Helicopters carried world leaders and delegations to a summit called to chart a course to end Russia’s war on its neighbor.

As Volodymyr Zelensky said, this is Kiev’s chance to fight a full-scale invasion with full-scale diplomacy and to win as wide support as possible for a peace plan designed by Ukraine.

Ultimately, the proposal must be presented to Russia, with international consensus behind it, and Moscow has no choice but to accept.

But that point, if it is ever possible, is still a long way off.

Ahead of the summit, Vladimir Putin made it clear he had no intention of withdrawing his forces: the “peace proposal” was a call for Ukraine’s surrender.

Even in Burgenstock, Moscow’s influence was firmly established.

Of the 90 or so countries represented, only 84 signed the final declaration affirming Ukraine’s territorial integrity and its right not to be invaded.

Saudi Arabia, India and South Africa abstained.

China, Russia’s closest ally, was significantly absent from the entire summit despite being involved in earlier preparatory stages. Russia itself was not invited.

image caption, The weekend conference was held in Burgenstock, Switzerland

But Mr Zelensky and his team appeared unfazed, even excited, by the decision. While things could have gone better for Kiev, they could have been much worse.

The president brushed off questions about the signatories to the statement, saying those who did not endorse it here may do so in the future. Some countries were only represented at a low level this weekend, he suggested, and should consult again in their capitals.

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The summit was convened at a difficult time for Ukraine on the battlefield.

Its troops are under pressure from a new Russian push around Kharkiv in the northeast.

Ukraine relies on Western military aid to resist Russia.

“Is victory enough? No. Is it too late? Yes,” Mr Zelensky told reporters at the end of the summit.

But he said he’s still pushing hard and getting it on a daily basis.

So it makes sense to seize the initiative in a peace plan and try to shape the process.

With U.S. presidential elections later this year and a surge in votes for far-right parties in Europe, often sympathetic to Russia, support for Ukraine may wane in the coming months.

The nation itself is exhausted by more than two years of war: the rows of military graves in cemeteries across the country are growing, and volunteers are not rushing to the registration offices in large numbers.

That doesn’t mean Kyiv is giving up the fight.

“It’s not because we’re weak, we’re talking about peace,” President Zelensky said firmly when I told him.

“We have always called for peace. At the height of the war, we were talking about peace. We wanted the world to put pressure on Russia to end this war. Stop killing us…stop killing civilians.”

The summit identified three less controversial areas for discussion: protecting food exports, protecting nuclear sites in Ukraine, and expediting the return of prisoners and children forcibly removed from occupied territory.

“Returning prisoners is a priority for us, because we know how our people suffer in Russian captivity,” explains Maxim Kolesnikov. The ex-soldier was jailed for 11 months in early 2022 after his unit was seized.

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In Russia he says he was attacked daily. Most of the people in his room were civilians.

But like Volodymyr Zelensky, he underlined that talking peace does not mean surrender.

“I went to war for the first time when I was 37; my second time was 45. I don’t want to go to war again when I’m 57,” the soldier said on the sidelines of the summit.

“We want a strong peace in which our independence and territorial integrity are protected.”

Away from this silent system there will be working groups to continue the Burgenstock discussions. But it’s not really clear how that will unfold into the peace plan that Ukraine and its host, Switzerland, are hoping for.

A second summit of leaders, which Ukraine has said will be hosted by Saudi Arabia, could include Russia in principle, both say. The Swiss should encourage it.

But Vladimir Putin has shown no real sign of wanting to pursue peace.

The weekend summit came to a somewhat abrupt end several hours earlier than expected.

This is not an unqualified victory for Ukraine.

But it was an opportunity for President Zelensky to drive home his key message: Russia, like a school bully, responds only to force.

Be it on the battlefield or diplomacy.

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