Home » Ukraine peace summit opens in Switzerland with low expectations

Ukraine peace summit opens in Switzerland with low expectations

Ukraine peace summit opens in Switzerland with low expectations

On a rainy, misty, damp day up in the Alpine resorts in Burgenstock, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy tried portraying an upbeat mood. At the inaugural global summit hosted by Switzerland to find a ‘path to peace’ 52 months since the Russian invasion, Mr. Zelenskyy hoped this dialogue would find a resolution to the war. Even though there were notable absentees in the room including Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was not invited by the Swiss.

“Even If they are not here today at the first summit, we have succeeded in bringing back to the world the idea that joint efforts can stop war and establish just peace. This idea will definitely work because the world has power,” Mr. Zelenskyy said.

In his initial remarks to the press at the Media Centre close to the talks venue, Mr. Zelenskyy stressed that ‘views, ideas and leadership of each nation are equally important’. However, the Ukrainian President refused to take questions before the official inaugural ceremony.

“Everything that will be agreed upon today at the summit will be part of the peacemaking process that we all need. I believe that we will witness history being made at the summit,” Mr. Zelenskyy said.

First initiated at the Bali G-20 summit in 2021 and followed up with four rounds of talks between National Security Advisors, the attendance count at the first two-day summit in Switzerland stood at 101 countries and organisations including 57 heads of state. The conference kicked off on Saturday afternoon with a plenary session. And on Sunday, working groups will discuss three key agendas — nuclear safety, freedom of shipping and food safety, and humanitarian aspects including prisoners of war. India has shied away from political representation, sending its senior diplomat in charge of the region instead. Brazil, the G-20 Chair is attending it only as an Observer with the envoy present.

Speaking at the event, U.S. Vice-President Kamala Harris said: “Russia’s aggression is not only an attack on the lives and freedom of the people of Ukraine. It is not only an attack on global food security and energy supplies. Russia’s aggression is also an attack on international rules and norms and the principles embodied in the UN charter.“

“If the world fails to respond when an aggressor invades its neighbour, other aggressors will undoubtedly be emboldened. It leads to the potential of a war, of conquest, of chaos,” she added.

“Europe is strong in its presence here at the summit. But that is not all. India, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Kenya and Mexico are also here among others,” Swiss President Viola Amherd said pointing to the wide canvass of representation at the talks amid criticisms of a fractious summit.

While the leaders tom-tom the historic significance of the summit, the expectations remain low key and the mood grim.

Low on expectations

Lotte Krank-van de Burgt, a journalist with the Finnish broadcaster YLE says her people can only hope that the conflict does not further escalate and spill over to immediate neighbours like Finland who have long shared good relations with Russia but are no longer on speaking terms.

“I would not say life has changed so much but maybe we are more worried about our big neighbour in the east. We are more worried about Russia than we have ever been before because it was such a shock that the war started, that they could attack a sovereign country. Everybody was thinking it could have been us also.”

She points to reports of Russian incursions into Finnish and more recently Swedish air space to stress that Moscow is reminding its neighbours of its presence in the region and the looming fear of what could come next.

Liliane Bivings is living the fear daily in Kyiv where she first moved as a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer in 2017. After COVID-19, she joined the Kyiv Post but as the newsroom shut down when the war began, the team launched Kyiv Independent.

“Right now the situation is quite difficult. The war can be felt quite intensely even in Kyiv which is far from the frontline,” she says with residents subjected to ten hours or more of power outages daily that disrupt their lives and livelihoods. But Ms. Bivings is not hopeful of the summit throwing up concrete solutions with Russia not in the room.

“I don’t want to be too pessimistic but am probably not expecting outcomes. Not just because Russia is not here but mostly because the situation in Ukraine on the battlefield isn’t really one that is conducive to any kind of negotiations,” she said.

“Russia is in a relatively stronger position on the battlefield right now. It does not have any reason to come to the negotiating table. Also there is no appetite in Ukraine yet to give up anything to Russia,” she adds.

On Friday, ahead of the Swiss summit, Mr. Putin demanded the complete withdrawal of Ukrainian troops from the territories of Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson for peace negotiations to begin. Ukraine slammed the offer. Ms. Bivings argues Burgenstock will hardly lead to any start of public negotiations between the two warring sides, even on humanitarian issues like swapping of children or prisoners.

“Putin just said that the path to peace for Russia is Ukraine giving up a bunch of territory, and surrendering and giving up any NATO aspirations. Ukraine is not going to do that not only because people don’t want that, but because it will be a bad move for European security, global security,” she says.

Elsewhere in Europe a certain sense of war fatigue is setting in and the gains made by far-right parties in European parliament elections is a sign of worry. The refugee crisis is a divisive issue. Add to it uncertainties about the United States’s policy on Ukraine should Republican contender Donald Trump get a shot back at power and the war persists.

“No one is expecting a peace treaty, that was not on the program anyway. But presence of these highly ranked politicians is a big sign,” says Johannes Ritter of the German Daily FAZ striking a more positive note. But he agrees the economic costs of the war is dragging down the initial high level support on display by ordinary people in Europe.

“We have had an energy crisis which has not really been resolved. We had high inflation which dampened the economic development and led to some insecurity. So one has to be strong and tell people why this is happening. And why it is right to support Ukraine. And why it is more important politically to act than to secure only one’s own wealth,” Mr. Ritter says.

India and the world is looking at the prolonged conflict with increasing worries even as another conflict continues in West Asia. Some 2,000 Ukrainian refugees have sought shelter in Japan more than 8,000 km away. This is a high number compared to refugees in the past welcomed by Tokyo which has taken a pro-Ukrainian stand. In an important move signalling Japanese pride, Toyota ended its vehicle production at its Saint Petersburg plant in Russia in September 2022. Today Prime Minister Kishida is at the Swiss meet confirming his support to Kyiv.

“Japan is looking for some clue which will eventually lead to some ceasefire negotiations in which Ukraine and Russia will both participate. They have to come up with some ideas that eventually will lead to any kind of platform that Russia and Ukraine will both join to talk,” says Masaki Kondo, Senior Editor of Jiji Press.

Switzerland, after not sending an invitation to Russia, has tried a course correction by saying that eventually Moscow will be brought into the fold of talks. The path to peace is under progress and will take a long time to rebuild. Meanwhile, in the midst of summer, Europeans are wary of another long winter looming large.

Smita Sharma is an independent journalist based in Delhi