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Why the Swiss peace summit is a diplomatic misstep

Considering Switzerland’s reputation for effective conflict-resolution diplomacy, how did it expect to achieve a ceasefire without Russia’s involvement? 

Why the Swiss peace summit is a diplomatic misstep
[Source photo: Chetan Jha/Press Insider]

The Peace Summit hosted by Switzerland in the splendid mountain resort of Bürgenstock on 15-16 June concluded with 78 of the 89 attending states signing a communiqué. US President Joe Biden was absent, sending vice-president Kamala Harris and national security adviser Jake Sullivan in his stead. 

Russia was not invited, and China opted out despite receiving an invite. India sent secretary (west) Pavan Kapoor, although both Ukraine and Switzerland had worked hard to secure the attendance of external affairs minister S. Jaishankar after gauging that Prime Minister Narendra Modi would not attend. 

India was among the 11 nations that did not sign the joint communiqué. The others were Armenia, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Indonesia, Bahrain, Colombia, South Africa, Thailand, Mexico, and the UAE. Brazil sent only an observer. 

The Swiss foreign office had indicated that one of the main objectives was to garner support for Ukraine from the Global South. Considering that 141 countries had voted for a resolution in the UN General Assembly on 23 February 2023, calling on Russia to withdraw its forces from Ukraine, it is clear that support for Ukraine has been plummeting. The summit’s obvious goal was to reverse this trend. 

It is worth noting that Israel signed up to state that ” food security must not be weaponized in any way.” 

It was puzzling that Russia—a central party to the conflict—was not invited. How did the Swiss expect to achieve a ceasefire, essential for peace, without involving Moscow, especially given Switzerland’s reputation for effective conflict-resolution diplomacy? 

It appears that Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and Biden, too, insisted on keeping Russia away. Zelenskyy has so far maintained that he would not talk to his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. It would appear that Zelenskyy and Biden were expecting Putin to fall after the economic sanctions damaged Russia’s economy while the Ukrainian military fought the Russian to a stalemate. 

The plan to hold a summit for securing a “comprehensive and lasting peace” was announced by the Swiss foreign office on 10 April after consulting potential invitees. Ukraine had requested Switzerland in January to organize a summit to discuss and approve Zelenskyy’s ‘ten-point peace plan’. 

Zelensky’s plan, announced at a G7 summit in October 2022, includes Russia withdrawing its military and restoring Ukraine to its 1991 borders; establishing a special tribunal for Russia’s aggression; and creating an international mechanism to use Russia’s assets abroad to compensate Ukraine for war damages. 

Switzerland realized that this plan would not be approved at the summit and decided to discuss only three items: nuclear safety, humanitarian issues including prisoner exchange and the return of abducted children, and freedom of navigation in the Black Sea for food security in Africa and the Global South. Three working groups discussed these items, but their reports have not been released. 

The summit took place immediately after the G7 summit in Fasano, Italy, from 13-15 June, where the bloc decided to offer Ukraine an interest-free $50 billion loan. The interest will be charged to the assets of the Russian Central Bank in the West. The principal will remain untouched, with the interest earned from these assets covering Ukraine’s interest payments. 

The initiative was taken by Washington. Biden has noted the ‘Ukraine fatigue’ in the Congress and among the public, and he has no intention to ask the Congress to grant additional financial support to Ukraine during the rest of his term. Further, taking into account the possibility of Donald Trump’s return to the White House in the November election, the G7 leaders were keen to make a long-term plan to support Ukraine. It seems that they failed to recall that Trump walked out of the Iran nuclear deal of his predecessor Barack Obama without any hesitation. 

The earlier US plan to use Russian assets for Ukraine’s military and economic support was deemed a non-starter in previous discussions, as discussed in this column.  

It is important to note that the summit’s decision is political and that the nitty-gritty, like who will take the risk of advancing the loan, has yet to be worked out.  

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni insisted that the financial risk should be borne by the US, the UK, Canada, and possibly Japan, and that the EU states should not get involved.  She added that considering that the bulk of the assets are in the EU, it will arrange for collateralizing the interest earned from the assets. 

Let us see whether this scheme works out and how long it will take for Ukraine to get the first tranche. 

There are other questions, such as if there will be a follow-up summit. Switzerland has expressed hope that Russia will be an invitee to the next summit, where a peace proposal can be presented.  

Is this day dreaming? Will Russia attend a summit where it will be presented with a peace proposal it had no part in drafting? 

In this context, it is important to note that Putin proposed a peace formula the day before the summit. He agreed to a ceasefire if two conditions are met: Ukraine should forego its bid to join NATO and accept Russia’s annexation of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia.  

Ukraine responded that Putin’s proposal was ‘absurd’. However, Zelensky added his own proposal that Russia might find equally absurd. He said that he is prepared to stop fighting and to talk to Russia provided the 1991 borders are restored.  

The short point is that neither side seems willing to agree to a ceasefire followed by fruitful and serious diplomatic negotiations. This indeed appears to be an unnecessary war driven by three men: Putin, Biden, and Zelenskyy. 

During the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, the US president John F. Kennedy did not assert Cuba’s right to decide its defense policy. He demanded the removal of missiles too close to America’s borders. Similarly, Ukraine’s joining of NATO places American missiles too close to Russia’s borders. Henry Kissinger had suggested Ukraine should serve as a bridge between Russia and NATO. 


KP Fabian is a diplomat who served in the Indian Foreign Service between 1964 and 2000. He is currently a distinguished fellow at the Symbiosis Law School in Pune. More

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