Ukraine summit: A path to peace?

By Sarah RainsfordEastern Europe correspondent

EPA Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addressing attendees at the peace summit from a lectern EPA

For two days the whir of propellers broke the peace of a Swiss mountainside, all in the cause of peace in Ukraine.

The helicopters were carrying world leaders and delegations to a summit called to sketch out a path towards ending Russia’s war on its neighbour.

It was Kyiv’s chance to battle the full-scale invasion with full-scale diplomacy, as Volodymyr Zelensky put it, and get as broad support as possible for a peace plan shaped by Ukraine.

Ultimately the idea is to present that plan to Russia with such international consensus behind it, Moscow has no alternative but to accept.

But that point, if it’s ever possible, still looks a very long way off.

On the eve of the summit, Vladimir Putin made clear he had no intention of withdrawing his troops: the “peace proposal” he then set out himself amounted to a call for Ukraine’s capitulation.

Moscow’s influence was tangible even here in Burgenstock.

Of the 90 or so countries represented, just 84 signed the final communique affirming Ukraine’s territorial integrity and its right not to be invaded.

Saudi Arabia, India and South Africa were among those who abstained.

More critical was the absence from the entire summit of Russia’s close ally, China, despite being involved in earlier preparatory stages. Russia itself was not invited.

Reuters The Swiss flag flies in front of a view of snow-capped mountains and the hotel where the peace summit took place in Lucerne, SwitzerlandReuters

The weekend summit took place in Burgenstock, Switzerland

But Mr Zelensky and his team seemed unfazed, even buoyed, by the outcome. Although things could have gone better for Kyiv, they could also have been far worse.

The president brushed off questions about signatories to the statement, saying those who hadn’t endorsed it here could still do so in the future. Some countries were only represented at a low level this weekend, he suggested, and needed to consult back in their capitals.

The summit was convened at a tough time for Ukraine on the battlefield.

Its troops are under pressure from a new Russian push around Kharkiv in the northeast.

And the Western military aid Ukraine relies on to resist Russia is still frustratingly slow to trickle through.

“Is it enough to win? No. Is it late? Yes,” Mr Zelensky told reporters, at the end of the summit.

But he said he was still pushing for more, and getting it, on a daily basis.

So seizing the initiative on a peace proposal, trying to shape the process, makes sense.

With US presidential elections later this year and a surge in votes in Europe for far-right parties, often sympathetic to Russia, support for Ukraine may falter in the coming months.

The country itself is also exhausted by more than two years of war: the lines of military graves at cemeteries across the country are growing and volunteers no longer rush to enlistment offices in great numbers.

That doesn’t mean Kyiv is giving up on the fight.

“It’s not because we are weaker that we’re talking about peace,” said President Zelensky firmly, when I put that to him.

“We have always called for peace. At the peak of war, we were talking about peace. We wanted the world to pressure Russia to end this war. And stop killing us… stop killing civilians.”

The summit identified three areas as the least contentious for discussion: protecting food exports, securing nuclear sites in Ukraine and accelerating the return of prisoners and of children, forcibly removed from occupied territory.

“Returning the prisoners is a priority for us, because we know how our people suffer in Russian captivity,” Maksym Kolesnikov explains. The former soldier was held prisoner for 11 months after his unit was captured in early 2022.

In Russia he says he was beaten, daily. Most of the others in his cell were civilians.

But like Volodymyr Zelensky, he underlined that talking peace did not mean surrender.

“When I was 37 I came to war the first time; I was 45 the second time. I really don’t want to go to war again when I am 57,” the soldier said, on the sidelines of the summit.

“We want a strong peace, with our independence and territorial integrity secured.”

There will be working groups to continue the Burgenstock discussions away from this tranquil setting. But how that expands to become the peace plan that Ukraine and its host Switzerland envisage, isn’t really clear.

Both say a second leaders’ summit – which Ukraine has hinted may be hosted by Saudi Arabia – could include Russia, in principle. The Swiss want to encourage that.

But Vladimir Putin has shown no genuine sign of wanting to pursue peace.

The weekend summit came to a somewhat abrupt end several hours earlier than anticipated.

It wasn’t an unreserved success for Ukraine.

But it was a chance for President Zelensky to drive home his main message: that Russia, like a school bully, only responds to strength.

Whether that’s on the battlefield or in diplomacy.

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