Countdown to Zelensky’s ‘Peace Summit’

Only a few days remain until the opening of the Summit on Peace in Ukraine, hosted by the Swiss Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) at the request of the Ukrainian government, and scheduled for June 15 to 16.  The bucolic setting, in Bürgenstock overlooking Lake Lucerne, couldn’t be more pleasant.  Gentle Alpine breezes will be blowing, the bells of cattle ascending to their summer pastures should be audible in the distance, and the fondue pots will be sizzling.

Although 160 nations have been invited to send their heads of state or other representatives, Russia is not among them.  It might seem curious to convene a summit designed to help end a conflict without inviting one of the major protagonists. With characteristic humility, the DFA has stated “The Summit in Switzerland is intended to initiate a peace process. Switzerland is convinced that Russia must be involved in this process. A peace process without Russia is unthinkable.”  The Ukrainian motive for requesting this conference is markedly different.            President Zelensky has stated repeatedly his earnest hope that this summit will force Russia to accept peace, presumably on the terms Ukraine still insists upon: complete withdrawal of troops to 1991 borders, payment of massive reparations, and war crimes tribunals for Russian leaders.  Hoping to split the difference, the Swiss are emphasizing the less controversial parts of the Ukrainian Government’s Ten Point peace plan, such as nuclear safety, environmental protection, and food security, while minimizing talk of Ukraine’s more ambitious goals.

Given these discordant expectations and the high stakes involved, the summit has the potential to be both a complete non-event, and extremely significant, though not for the reasons intended by its organizers.  Recent media coverage focused largely on who is and isn’t going.  China has indicated that it sees no point in attending the summit if Russia is not present.  Indian PM Narendra Modi has apparently decided to attend, though his statement suggests he’s leaving himself room to skip out after the G-7 in Italy, and current indications are that lower level Indian representation is more likely.  The fact that the nation which will “resonate the voice of the Global South” is currently the second largest customer for Russian oil and helping greatly to keep Putin’s economy going, must be less than comforting to Zelensky.

On this side of the ocean, establishment types are slamming President Biden for his intention to skip Bürgenstock in favor of a Hollywood fundraiser (with some reporting focusing on George Clooney’s role in that event, perhaps an indirect swipe at his wife for her part in the effort to send Netanyahu to the International Criminal Court).  Zelensky has defined the stakes more dramatically, proclaiming that a no-show by Biden will “be met by an applause by Putin – a personal, standing applause” .  Political fundraisers are one of those inconveniences that pop up in countries that don’t postpone their presidential elections indefinitely.  For Biden the downsides to attending this summit would outweigh any upsides.  At best he would repeat the same well-worn talking points seeking world solidarity with Ukraine, and get a few more stirring photos embracing Zelensky.  More likely he would face embarrassment at the much touted conference failing to persuade many (if any) new countries to support Ukraine’s peace demands.  This summit might be the last straw for much of the world with regard to US hypocrisy and double standards.  To speak indignantly of Russia’s assault on Ukrainian sovereignty, given the past US approach to the sovereignty of Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Venezuela, might draw some pointed reactions.  On top of that, the past eight months of indiscriminate slaughter in Gaza, aided and abetted by Washington despite its professed redlines, have severely undermined what remaining credibility the US has with the Global South.  If this is the American-led, rules-based order, they’ll take a pass.  Given that daunting landscape, Biden has offered up Vice President Kamala Harris to take one for the team in Switzerland.

For those determined to continue this war for years, however, this conference will no doubt be viewed in a different light.  In breathless media accounts and think tank analyses, the summit is likely to be hyped as yet another “game changer” for Ukraine, along the lines of HIMARS, ATACMS, Abrams tanks, seizing Russian assets, disjointed missile strikes on Crimea, receiving permission from Western allies to strike targets in Russia, and so on.  Zelensky has so far rejected any negotiations recognizing current conditions, and stated that the world must force Putin to conclude peace.  But whose minds will be changed in Bürgenstock?  Will China now decide to stop selling dual use items (and possibly more) to Russia?  Will a number of small Pacific Island nations aligned with Washington provide formidable new defense capabilities to supplement those of NATO, whose combined membership can’t match Russia’s production of artillery shells for the foreseeable future?  Will India stop buying Russian oil?

The true significance of this conference may be that it leads to the dawning recognition, if not by the Ukrainian Government then perhaps by some of its staunch supporters, that there is no game changer, no magic bullet that will overcome the structural disadvantages in manpower, artillery, airpower, and munitions that Ukraine suffers from, all while Russia continues to make incremental gains in territory and to devise new ways to defeat Western weapon systems.  If Putin is serious about negotiating, a proposition still to be tested, then in the wake of this summit Ukraine and its allies may realize that it’s best to explore that offer, before their battlefield prospects deteriorate even further, and thousands more lives are lost on both sides.

Elements of the Ukraine crisis remind me of the early stages of the Syrian civil war.  About ten years ago I worked on the humanitarian assistance response to the Syria crisis, at a time when many in the US interagency were enthusiastically riding the regime change express.  I don’t want to stretch the analogy too much, because obviously Ukraine’s position of defending its sovereignty is vastly stronger under international law than our attempt to overthrow the Assad regime.  The similarity I see is the complete refusal of both our chosen allies to face the reality of facts on the ground.  The Western educated Syrian activists with whom we sipped tea in Istanbul made completely outlandish negotiation demands, such as insisting that Assad and his government would have no role in any future Syria.  Of course the Syrian opposition (excepting the jihadists) had zero military or political capability to enforce such demands, and simply assumed the US and its allies would do so on their behalf.  Zelensky, with his Ten Point peace plan, embodies the same delusional approach.  He’s like a poker player holding a pair of threes, while adamantly insisting he has a full house.  Regardless of the legality of his cause, he simply lacks the military capacity or diplomatic leverage to back up his demands.

After the delegations have gone home and Bürgenstock is again a quiet retreat for the superrich, this conference might prove to have been little more than a throw of the dice by an increasingly desperate Ukrainian government.  The best result of the event might be if some Latin American representative, well versed in the novels of Garcia Marquez and his generation, can meet Zelensky privately at the bar and persuade him that Magical Realism belongs in literature, and not in statecraft.

John Zavales served for more than 30 years across several foreign policy agencies, including the Office of the Secretary of Defense, State Department, and the U.S. Agency for International Development. He is an independent researcher and commentator on political and security issues, appearing on conference panels and international media.  The views expressed are entirely his own.