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OPINION

The powers that aren't: The Ukraine Peace Summit in Switzerland attempted to restore the past rather than shape the future

In mid-June, the fifth Summit on Peace in Ukraine took place in Switzerland. It was attended by representatives from 92 countries, the majority of whom signed a communiqué denouncing nuclear threats, advocating for the exchange of all prisoners of war, supporting the reopening of free navigation in the Black Sea, and calling for the transfer of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant back to Ukrainian control. All of these are unobjectionable aims, but the capacity of the participants in Switzerland to bring them about is questionable. Economist Vladislav Inozemtsev believes the summit's lackluster outcomes are the result of its format. The problem is not that Russia was absent by design, but that key powers like China, without whom it is all but impossible to reshape the world order, were not present.

The fifth Summit on Peace in Ukraine Peace took place in Bürgenstock, Switzerland. It focused on the “peace formula” proposed by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on November 15, 2022. Talks about convening the summit started in the spring, and the forum was promoted as the most comprehensive attempt of its kind to end Russia’s ongoing invasion of its neighbor. The “formula” included demands for the withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukrainian territory, guarantees of Ukraine's territorial integrity, the release of all prisoners and deportees, trials for those responsible for aggression, and compensation for the various damages inflicted on Ukraine. Additionally, international security guarantees for Ukraine were to be discussed.

Over the past year, it has become evident that Ukraine is unable to deal Russia the kind of comprehensive battlefield defeat that might force the Kremlin to accept an end to the fighting. That failure is the joint result of insufficient Western support for Ukraine and the hesitance of authorities in Kyiv to fully mobilize for the fight on a schedule that might have exploited a window of relative Russian weakness in late 2022 and early 2023. At present, the stable state of the Russian economy, the rapid growth of its military-industrial complex, and the readiness to form a mercenary army by offering high salaries and compensations have strengthened President Vladimir Putin's confidence that the war can continue almost indefinitely.

Such a reality renders it all but impossible to achieve peace on Kyiv's terms anytime in the foreseeable future. Russian authorities are directly threatening Ukraine and the West with nuclear strikes if the Ukrainian army liberates the territories “annexed” by Russia. Kyiv's allies are struggling to provide additional funding for Ukraine as public support wanes among Western voters. China and the “global South” are clearly advocating for either direct negotiations between Russia and Ukraine or international consultations involving both parties. In this context, Ukraine desperately needs a major diplomatic breakthrough, and President Zelensky's recent foreign visits, as well as international conferences on Ukrainian issues, were intended to signal that events were still moving in Kyiv's favor.

However, such hopes seem unlikely to materialize. Ukrainian politicians set very high expectations, claiming that nearly all world leaders would gather at the summit in Bürgenstock. During the preparatory phase, the high-end estimate suggested 160 heads of state and government would turn up. Yet it quickly became clear that not everyone was willing to discuss Zelensky's “peace formula.” In response to growing pessimism, the Ukrainian side announced that only three issues would be addressed at the summit: the security of nuclear facilities, freedom of navigation in the Black Sea, and the exchange of prisoners. This narrowing of the agenda inevitably led to a decline in interest in the conference, and the Kremlin exploited the development by using China to persuade peripheral countries to abstain from participation. By May 1, the forum's attendance sheet had significantly shortened.

It quickly became clear that not everyone was willing to discuss Zelensky's “peace formula”

As a result, only 56 heads of state and government, along with representatives from 36 additional countries, attended the summit — a turnout that hardly indicates to the Kremlin that it is in complete international isolation. Among G20 members, only nine leaders were present, and that count includes U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, whom the organizers categorized as being equivalent to a head of state. Regardless of how one evaluates the significance of this summit, it must be acknowledged as a purely Western initiative: representatives from 24 of the 27 EU countries, as well as the U.S., Canada, the UK, Japan, and South Korea participated, while the “global South” was mainly represented by observers.

Sensing these dynamics, Putin once again declared Russia's readiness for negotiations and outlined the Kremlin's proposals, which entirely reject Zelensky's “peace formula.” Moscow's demands include not only ending the war at the current front line but also transferring Ukrainian-controlled areas of the Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson regions to Russia — and recognizing their annexation through international treaties. Additionally, according to Putin’s stated proposals, Kyiv must undergo a still undefined process of “denazification,” abandon plans to join NATO, and “demilitarize.” As if the Kremlin’s position were still insufficiently unrealistic, Putin stressed that meeting these conditions — i.e. conceding to complete capitulation — would merely set the stage for Kyiv to enter negotiations with Moscow. In addition, according to the Kremlin’s version of reality, these negotiations could not be held with Zelensky, whose presidential term expired in May, but with some “legitimate Kyiv authorities.” Almost immediately after Putin's statement, the Office of the President of Ukraine dismissed any possibility of discussing this plan.

It is unlikely that any serious negotiations between Ukraine and Russia will commence anytime in the near future. Although the Kremlin's plan has no chance at solving the conflict — both because the leadership in Kyiv would face a new Maidan if they agreed to it, and because Putin cannot be trusted after so many years of lies — its announcement was a significant diplomatic event. Revealed a day before the Swiss conference, it aimed to convince the international community that the Ukrainian side’s demands were unreasonable and to serve as a reminder that other options — including those proposed by Chinese and African leaders — were possible. While I don't think Putin expects Kyiv to hand over even the occupied territories to Russia, he almost certainly achieved his goal: the truncated “peace formula” was discussed in Bürgenstock against the backdrop of considering alternative scenarios.

Whether one likes it or not, after two and a half years of war, Zelensky finds himself in an almost impossible situation. Even if some Western countries are finally permitting Kyiv to use supplied weaponry for strikes against Russia, it remains highly unlikely that any NATO country will commit its own troops to a war with a nuclear-armed state, and without direct military support, reclaiming Ukrainian territory is all but impossible. At the same time, the enthusiasm among Ukraine's allies is dwindling: while they will provide additional financial aid and establish mechanisms to use revenues from seized Russian reserves to assist Kyiv, gestures like transferring a few F-16s remain largely symbolic. This situation echoes the circumstances faced during the Istanbul negotiations in spring 2022, when Russia used diplomatic trickery and nuclear threats to dissuade Western countries from sending serious weapons systems to Ukraine until it was too late for them to actually offer the prospect of ending the war on Kyiv’s terms.

However, the summer of 2024 also has its differences with spring 2022. Today, there are hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian casualties, millions of refugees, and extensive damage wrought across Ukraine's economy. What was the purpose of these sacrifices if both sides find themselves back at square one? Why did the West allocate over $300 billion in aid to Kyiv if none of Ukraine's demands could be met? And perhaps most crucially now, what policy can be expected from Zelensky if he continues to overlook the evolving situation, reiterating stances first voiced when Russian military personnel were retreating from Kherson and Balakliia way back in 2022? These are the questions that weigh most heavily on the minds of the politicians who assembled at the Swiss resort, even if much of the official discussion focused on non-controversial, agreed upon topics like nuclear energy security, ensuring Ukrainian food supplies, or the exchange of prisoners captured in battle. Consequently, I believe that resolutions accepted out of inertia will bring about minimal change, while the Kremlin will likely mock the promise to invite Russia to a similar future gathering.

Does all of this mean that Ukraine and its allies should agree to Putin's demands? Not at all. However, what definitely needs consideration is the adequacy of the format for summits and negotiations. Until recently, the West avoided discussing Ukrainian settlement behind Kyiv's back — partly because the United States and European countries emphasized Ukraine's sovereignty, and also because Western leaders hoped Ukrainian resistance would unify global efforts against Russia. Today there is no doubt that Ukraine is a sovereign country and a serious player in international affairs — but the expectation that most non-Western countries would heed the call of providing direct support to Ukraine has vanished.

The expectation of most non-Western countries shifting towards direct support for Ukraine has vanished

In my opinion, this situation warrants a reconsideration of approach — potentially even temporarily excluding Kyiv’s representatives from discussions about Ukraine’s future. Essentially, the next major conference on European settlement could proceed without the involvement of either conflicting party. Given widespread Western beliefs about Russia's heavy reliance on China and the assessment that Ukraine cannot hold out forever against Russia without Western support, it would be logical to explore negotiations involving either the U.S. and China or a coalition of Western nations and BRICS members. The objective would be to craft a solution that could garner agreement from both Kyiv and Moscow. These negotiations would aim to foster a willingness to compromise and demonstrate the readiness of new global powers to collectively address emerging global challenges.

The current conflict between Russia and Ukraine represents a major confrontation between those advocating for a revision of the late 20th-century world order and those who seek to maintain old structures. From my perspective, returning to the previous state, whether formally or fundamentally, is unfeasible. Restoring Ukraine's territorial integrity now depends on establishing a new global framework that entails reassessing numerous traditional principles.

Restoring Ukraine's territorial integrity now depends on establishing a new global framework

Many scholars and policymakers argue that the world is currently experiencing a Third World War. In my opinion, this is a plausible assertion. However, if we accept this premise, we must recall that both previous global conflicts concluded with a profound restructuring of the international order. Fundamental concepts such as Woodrow Wilson's principle of national self-determination and the establishment of the United Nations emerged during the active phases of these conflicts. The First and Second World Wars did not restore, but rather shattered, the pre-existing world orders — and this despite the defeat and subsequent punishment of the aggressors through reparations and international tribunals.

What is most concerning about the West at present is not merely its hesitancy — notably, Germany's recent blocking of further sanctions against Russia ahead of the summit — but its failure to recognize that returning to the world of the 2000s is impracticable. While it may eventually be possible to curb Russia's actions and restore Ukraine's lost territories, such an outcome will inevitably require a reformation in the framework of international relations. The recent Bürgenstock summit did not symbolize a unified global response against an erratic individual actor, but rather resembled a gathering of politicians evading the profound global changes that are underway and observers keen to listen to deliberations about everything other than the most important topics of the day.

Each individual and every nation exists within a specific historical context, and misjudging this context can lead directly to personal or national catastrophe. The Bürgenstock summit represents a sort of “out-of-sync” gathering — one that ignores the imperative to formulate a strategic vision for the new world of the 21st century. This new world will certainly not embody Putin's “lawless world,” nor will it simply reincarnate the status quo ante of the late 20th century. While it might be understandable for Zelensky to overlook the differences between 2022 and 2024, it is unforgivable for leaders of the “free world” to ignore the distinctions between the unipolar world of the 1990s and the escalating chaos of the 2020s. The longer they cling to an outdated worldview, the sooner their own world will crumble.

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