An Embattled Kyiv Looks for Aid in the Diplomatic Arena
An Embattled Kyiv Looks for Aid in the Diplomatic Arena
A swiss military member is pictured during a guided visit to the security zone of the June 15-16 peace summit for Ukraine, in Obburgen near Burgenstock, Switzerland, June 10, 2024.
A swiss military member is pictured during a guided visit to the security zone of the June 15-16 peace summit for Ukraine, in Obburgen near Burgenstock, Switzerland, June 10, 2024. REUTERS/Pierre Albouy
Q&A / Europe & Central Asia 8 minutes

An Embattled Kyiv Looks for Aid in the Diplomatic Arena

High-ranking officials from around the world will soon convene in Switzerland for talks aimed at “inspiring a future peace process” in Ukraine. No Russian representative will be there. In this Q&A, Crisis Group lays out the summit organisers’ goals and the obstacles to achieving them. 

What is happening?

On 15-16 June, delegates from roughly ninety countries including numerous heads of state and government will assemble at Bürgenstock mountain in Switzerland for what the Swiss are calling a Summit on Peace in Ukraine. The gathering follows a series of meetings at the national security adviser level, beginning in June 2023, which have aimed to rally support for Ukraine among non-Western nations and isolate Russia. The Swiss government, which has organised the Bürgenstock summit at Ukraine’s request, says the meeting’s “overarching objective … is to inspire a future peace process” by allowing participants to sketch a possible framework for ending Russia’s war in Ukraine. Russia is not invited, and Russian officials have disparaged the event as “absurd”.

At the time of the first meeting of the series, a national security advisers’ conference in Copenhagen on 25 June 2023, Ukraine was feeling emboldened. It had recaptured large swathes of land from Russia in late 2022, and it was hopeful that its summer counteroffensive would claw back more. Part of the Ukrainian government’s thinking in holding the Copenhagen event – and the follow-on discussions in Jeddah, Malta and Davos – was to take control of the narrative about what peace on its terms would look like, even as a number of capitals began to push their own ideas with both Kyiv and Moscow. Countries such as South Africa and India that had baulked at voting to condemn Russia in the UN General Assembly were willing to engage in the closed consultations.

Meaningful negotiations ... remain out of reach, as both Kyiv and Moscow stick to theories of victory that amount to outlasting the other

The mood today is a far cry from what it was a year ago. Meaningful negotiations that could truly end the devastating war in Ukraine remain out of reach, as both Kyiv and Moscow stick to theories of victory that amount to outlasting the other. But Ukraine finds itself increasingly embattled, both at the front and in the diplomatic arena. Struggling to hold the line amid Russian advances, and watching outside backers struggle with internal political divides and growing concern about the risks of being drawn into direct conflict with Russia, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s team is desperate for the higher-level and higher-profile summit in Switzerland to succeed. It wants to show that Kyiv still has widespread support for fighting Moscow, not sitting down for talks.

It is possible, however, that the touted event will backfire. Zelenskyy has already expressed frustration that his U.S. counterpart Joe Biden is sending Vice President Kamala Harris to Bürgenstock instead of coming himself. Such spats have become a regular feature of Washington-Kyiv relations, but summit preparations have complicated Ukraine’s relations with other capitals as well. Some of the potential peace process facilitators, including China and Saudi Arabia (despite hosting one of the preparatory sessions in 2023) have declined to attend, citing Russia’s exclusion. Kyiv and its backers will be hard pressed to get tangible results from the meeting, given that countries have been unwilling on the earlier occasions to sign on to anything beyond reaffirmations of the UN Charter’s principles of territorial integrity.

What will the conference focus on, and what might it achieve?

The summit’s exact agenda is the product of compromises between Ukraine and its partners. In the autumn of 2022, when the Ukrainian army was gaining significant ground, President Zelenskyy outlined a ten-point “peace formula” centered around restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity. At a moment when Ukraine was making progress on the battlefield and hence thinking it might be able to engage Russia in peace talks on advantageous terms, Zelenskyy hoped that he could garner support for his proposals to put further pressure on Moscow. Kyiv suggested that an international summit endorse the ten points, at one point floating the idea of holding it at the UN in early 2023, on the first anniversary of the full-scale war. Its diplomatic partners advised against moving hastily, and Kyiv instead attempted to build support for Zelenskyy’s formula through the national security advisers’ meetings. The Ukrainian proposal contains many ideas that most states would readily endorse, such as the need to safeguard nuclear sites. But it also includes elements that enjoy less broad-based support, including calls for reparations from Moscow and holding Russian leaders accountable for crimes of aggression. Some of Ukraine’s friends worry that basing talks on the Ukrainian ten-point plan alone would put off participants more sceptical of punishing Russia.

Switzerland has indicated that the summit will build on not only Zelenskyy’s formula but also other peace proposals “based on the UN Charter”.

Switzerland, which offered to play host in January, has therefore indicated that the summit will build on not only Zelenskyy’s formula but also other peace proposals “based on the UN Charter”. One source of inspiration that European diplomats have pointed to is a UN General Assembly resolution on a “comprehensive, just and lasting peace” adopted in February 2023 and backed by 141 states. That resolution calls for Russia to withdraw from Ukraine and contains many elements of the Ukrainian formula but sidesteps its more divisive elements. Seeking to limit controversy, the Swiss summit will concentrate on points that are common to the Ukrainian formula and the UN resolution: protecting nuclear sites; ensuring that Ukrainian agricultural exports reach world markets; and taking steps to facilitate prisoner exchanges and the return of Ukrainian children to their families. The latter three are issues on which third countries have helped broker limited agreements between Kyiv and Moscow at various points in the conflict.

Switzerland has declared that, in a best-case scenario, the summit discussions could lead to a “roadmap” for initiating talks that also involve Russia. It is not certain that the summit participants will agree to a joint communiqué, but Swiss officials will likely convey the event’s outcomes to Moscow. The Swiss have also indicated that there could be follow-on events, to include Russian diplomats “sooner or later”. President Zelenskyy’s chief of staff, Andrii Yermak, said Kyiv could be open to a Russian representative attending a future summit to discuss what emerges from Bürgenstock. Russian officials continue to roundly dismiss the process.

How have major non-Western powers responded to the summit?

Ukrainian officials have worked assiduously to attract participants to the summit (Switzerland invited 160 states to attend, leaving out only those, such as Venezuela and Nicaragua, that firmly back Russia). President Zelenskyy has lobbied other leaders personally to attend, visiting Singapore, the Philippines and Qatar in early June to drum up support for the event among Asian countries.

This charm offensive has run into obstacles. The turnout of European and Latin American states in Switzerland will be good, but the showing from Africa and Asia seems to be meagre. The Summit may even have had the unintended consequence of pushing hefty non-Western powers toward Moscow. One of Ukraine’s main goals for Bürgenstock was that China participate, given Beijing’s global clout and critical importance in sustaining Moscow’s war effort through growing trade. While clearly supporting Moscow, Beijing has hedged its position in prior pronouncements on the war, and China’s envoy for the Russian-Ukrainian war, Li Hui, joined the Jeddah national security advisers’ session on the peace formula in August 2023. Ukrainian officials have laboured for months to secure China’s attendance at Bürgenstock, with the first deputy foreign minister travelling to Beijing in a last-ditch effort on 5 June. Yet China has announced that it will not even send a lower-ranking delegate to Switzerland if Russia is not invited. Zelenskyy has accused Chinese officials of lobbying other states to do the same – statements that are unlikely to build bridges with Beijing.

China also appears to have revised its public stance on the war.

China also appears to have revised its public stance on the war. In mid-May, Presidents Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping signed a new partnership declaration in Beijing that called for a rapid end to the war, stressing the need for Western countries to respect Russia’s security interests but making no mention of Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Shortly afterward, China and Brazil – the current chair of the G20 – released a six-point set of “common understandings” on the “political settlement of the Ukrainian crisis” that called for “an international peace conference held at a proper time that is recognised by both Russia and Ukraine” and again contained no reference to Ukrainian territorial integrity and sovereignty.

While this statement was not entirely surprising – Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has frequently criticised U.S. and NATO policy on the war – it added to Ukrainian officials’ concerns that Russia and China might convince significant non-Western countries to back a peace proposal to counter Zelenskyy’s formula, one that would more or less openly affirm Russia’s right to hold on to the territory it is has seized. Brazil and South Africa are only sending relatively low-level delegations to the event and Saudi Arabia, previously seen as diplomatically helpful to Ukraine but as of 2024 a new member of the BRICS club, has decided not to attend at all. The BRICS foreign ministers met this week and released a statement that made only passing reference to Ukraine, suggesting the bloc has yet to reach a common view of the war. But it is evident that an important segment of the so-called Global South is also distancing itself from Ukraine and its backers.

Does the summit have any real bearing on the chances of peace?

Absent a major surprise on the Bürgenstock, the Summit on Peace for Ukraine is unlikely to deliver much of consequence. Ukraine and Russia already have channels for discussing certain discrete issues on the table, including food exports, prisoner exchanges and children. The International Atomic Agency has been involved in talks about nuclear security questions throughout the war. Ukraine may follow up on the Swiss summit by tabling a UN General Assembly resolution on the security of nuclear sites, but that step is unlikely to change the facts on the ground. Some officials who facilitate Russian-Ukrainian contacts worry that the summit will complicate the two countries’ limited cooperation in such matters, by politicising what have been lower-profile issues to date. In the meantime, Ukrainian officials are more concerned with the possibility of new Russian offensives and the outcome of the July NATO summit in Washington – where they hope to make progress toward membership in the alliance – than with what emerges from Bürgenstock.

Nonetheless, the Swiss summit is a chance for Ukraine and its allies to underline what the UN General Assembly recognised in 2022 and repeated in its February 2023 resolution on a just peace in Ukraine: Russia’s all-out aggression is a blatant violation of international law. As the war grinds on, many non-Western governments that expressed support for Ukraine have become preoccupied with other concerns, from international debt levels to the war in Gaza, where Western support for Israel is the source of great frustration. This meeting is a fresh opportunity, however fleeting, to bring the focus back to Ukraine and acknowledge what is at stake there, in terms of both escalation risks and the threat to the core principles of international law – sovereignty, territorial integrity and non-aggression – that Russia’s behavior has ruthlessly undermined.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.