Zelensky’s Peace Summit Is Just an Echo Chamber

The Ukrainian President will use his platform in Switzerland to hector his supporters to send more weapons and money to Kyiv

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In one of his more bizarre outbursts, Volodymir Zelensky, red of face, jabbing his finger, recently accused China of being “an instrument in the hands of Putin”. He said this at the recent Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore as part of a world tour, in which he is encouraging participation at what Ukraine calls the Global Peace Summit.  This will take place in Switzerland from 15-16 June, and China has said it will not attend. Zelensky was treading a now well-worn path in which he and other senior Ukrainian figures insult countries that don’t bend to Ukraine’s demands for support in the war with Russia.

He believes that China has been discouraging countries from attending the Summit but provided no evidence of this.  Some reports suggest that up to 107 States may attend.  Although, in addition to Xi Jinping, there’s a chance Joe Biden may also not attend because of a fund-raiser in Texas.  Those who do send country delegations will undoubtedly enjoy the comforts of the Bürgenstock Resort on the shores of Lake Lucerne.  Though I suspect many will be confused about the purpose of the event.

For, despite its billing, this won’t be a Global Summit. If it was, it would undoubtedly look at the appalling situation in Israel and Gaza, and no doubt other conflict hotspots across the world too. It might consider more broadly how to strengthen the adherence of states to their obligations under the UN Charter or review progress in strengthening international peacebuilding architecture. But it won’t do those things.

Indeed, the Swiss Government, which is hosting, refers to it as the Summit on Peace in Ukraine.  Although it isn’t clear that Switzerland is in charge, as most of the press reporting about invitations appears to issue from Zelensky’s office. So this raises a diplomatic question as to the precise scope of the event itself?  Summits are normally hosted by the countries in which they take place; those countries shape the agenda and try to steer a communique that represents the best outcome of what can be agreed among the parties. In this case, there appears to be a diplomatic tug of love between the Swiss and the Ukrainians about who is running the show.

For Ukraine, the Summit is explicitly an opportunity to push Zelensky’s so-called ten-point peace formula, which is essentially the points he made in a speech at UNGA.  The formula does contain some helpful lines on nuclear safety, food and energy security and environmental protection.  But it also contains three points that are probably unachievable.  Namely, the full restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, by which it means Ukraine’s border pre-2014.  This, according to Zelensky, ‘is not up to negotiations’. Secondly, the full withdrawal of Russia’s military and, third, the establishment of a tribunal to investigate alleged Russian war crimes.

However, Ukraine’s pre-2014 border won’t be restored because the west tacitly gave up on Crimea in 2014 and focussed its energy instead on attempts to mediate a peace in the Donbass. These attempts notably included the Franco-German orchestrated Normandy format, which failed in the teeth of US and UK interference; namely, the locking in of sanctions against Russia under an unattainable notion of full Minsk II implementation. European leaders won’t commit to a plan where retaking Crimea is a key element, indeed, western war aims in Ukraine are now completely unclear, beyond helping Ukraine to hold on from further territorial losses.

Even though hardline and now sidelined figures like Boris Johnson and Liz Truss have long supported the aspiration to re-take Crimea, Ukraine does not now and will never have the military capabilities to do so.  So the second and related aspiration of the full withdrawal of Russian troops is also unrealistic, however the map is drawn. Using western weapons to strike targets in the west of Russia won’t change the balance of power on the battlefield in Ukraine which favours Russia. It also won’t decisively shift Russian public opinion away from support for Putin in this war. Rather, it will ramp up the risk of escalation by Russia, which has still not committed its forces to the fight in Ukraine, in any numbers.

While there is clearly a need to investigate allegations of war crimes committed by Russian forces during the war, the west will struggle to deliver this, not least because of the inevitable pressure to consider allegations of war crimes committed by Ukrainian forces.  And as neither Ukraine nor Russia are signatories to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, neither country would recognise the legitimacy of any investigation should it materialise.  That would render the endeavour toothless in the absence of more coercive measures to hold either country to account under international law.

So, Zelensky’s plan is nothing more than Ukraine’s maximalist position that will inevitably be bargained down in any future peace negotiations that take place with Russia.

But, and here’s the rub, Russia hasn’t been invited to the Swiss Summit.  The Swiss Government believes that Russia should be invited. The Swiss MFA website says “Switzerland is convinced that Russia must be involved in this (peace) process. A peace process without Russia is unthinkable.” But Zelensky clearly doesn’t agree. It has been an explicit aim of Ukrainian foreign policy to exclude Russia from any dialogue on a settlement of the conflict.

Indeed, this mirrors long-standing UK policy of talking about Russia and not to Russia. Rather, and in a recent visit to Madrid, Zelensky encouraged western partners to force Russia to make peace.  By that, he meant specifically to continue to provide Ukraine with offensive weapons that it can use it strike directly into Russia. Or force Russia into peace by continuing to make war, even though there is no evidence that NATO plans to join the fight in any decisive way.

And just to be clear, on the summitry itself, Zelensky’s so-called Peace Formula isn’t a communique as the Swiss are (or should be) holding the pen. The Swiss are shooting for peace. But, whenever Zelensky talks about peace, what he really means is ‘keep funding the war’.  So this creates a recipe for diplomats finessing any public statements at the end of a Summit that will, most likely, achieve nothing.

Since his unhelpful comments about China, Zelensky has also suggested that Donald Trump is a loser. The event in Switzerland is shaping up to be another echo chamber for an increasingly boorish Zelensky to publicly hector countries that don’t agree with his deluded and completely unsupportable position.  It’s time for real peace talks with Russia to begin.

Ian Proud is a former British diplomat and was the Economic Counsellor at the British Embassy in Moscow from July 2014 to 2019.  While in Russia, Ian advised UK Ministers on Russia’s political economy, and that of neighbouring former Soviet states, including Ukraine. He recently published his memoir, a Misfit in Moscow: how British diplomacy in Russia failed, 2014-2019.