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Diplomacy Watch: What’s the point of Swiss peace summit?

Diplomacy Watch: What’s the point of Swiss peace summit?

There’s little reason to believe the much-hyped diplomatic confab will make progress toward ending the war

Analysis | QiOSK

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky seems to be everywhere. Just this past week, Zelensky zipped between Singapore, the Philippines, Qatar, and France in a whirlwind tour of meetings and diplomatic confabs.

Zelensky’s world tour focused on two major goals: pushing for deeper NATO involvement in the conflict, and boosting attendance at a summit later this month in Switzerland, where delegates from over 100 countries will discuss a diplomatic path forward for the war that has ravaged Ukraine over the past two years.

On the first point, the Ukrainian leader has been rather successful. U.S. President Joe Biden recently authorized Ukraine’s military to strike targets within Russia using U.S. weapons — a move long seen as a red line due to the risks of broader escalation. And France is reportedly on the verge of sending military trainers to Ukraine, which would dramatically increase the odds of direct NATO involvement in the war.

The second goal has been more challenging. Ukraine’s 10-point peace plan, which demands the full expulsion of Russian troops from the country and the prosecution of top Kremlin officials, was easier to entertain when Kyiv still held an edge on the battlefield. Now, after roughly a year and a half of brutal stalemate, the military calculus has shifted in Russia’s favor, making Ukraine’s demands — and the summit itself — seem a bit fanciful.

This is perhaps one reason why Biden rejected Zelensky’s request to attend the June 15 meeting, opting instead to jet off to California for a celebrity-filled campaign fundraiser. Vice President Kamala Harris and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan have said they will go in Biden’s stead, but the big man’s absence will be hard to ignore.

While this fact alone won’t necessarily sink the summit, most available evidence suggests that meaningful progress toward a diplomatic solution is unlikely at best.

Perhaps the most significant obstacle is credibility. Once-neutral Switzerland has made no secret of its desire to punish Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. The Swiss have largely signed onto Western sanctions and even banned Russian planes from flying over their territory — an entirely symbolic move given that the country is entirely surrounded by European Union states, which had already banned Russian overflights.

These decisions have led the Kremlin to reject the prospect of Swiss mediation, undermining the chances of any meaningful progress at the upcoming summit.

Another major problem is, of course, the fact that Russia was not invited to the talks. Ukraine has said that Kremlin representatives could eventually join the negotiations, but only on Kyiv’s terms.

Russia’s absence appears to be a major reason that China will skip the Swiss summit. Beijing sent representatives to several of the five previous rounds of talks on Zelensky’s plan, but the rising power now seems to have given up on Ukraine’s approach.

The decision is a reflection of China’s broader approach to mediation, which prizes direct talks between belligerents above all else. “The way in which [China] sees itself as contributing is by bringing the parties together, providing a platform for discussion and serving as a more neutral actor that has legitimacy in the eyes of all of the actors involved,” Dawn Murphy of the U.S. National War College told RS in a recent interview.

Zelensky made an effort to change Beijing’s mind during his stopover in Singapore for the annual Shangri-La Dialogue. But Chinese officials chose not to meet with the Ukrainian president, leading him to lash out publicly.

“Unfortunately Ukraine does not have any powerful connections with China because China does not want it,” he said, accusing Beijing of acting as an “instrument” of Russian foreign policy.

All of these indicators now paint a dismal diplomatic picture. China and Switzerland, both of which had some chance of mediating talks, are now seen as hopelessly biased toward one of the belligerents. Other potential mediators — including Brazil, Mexico, South Africa, and the Vatican — have been chastened by their own attempts to convene negotiations.

The Switzerland summit will no doubt involve serious talks on important aspects of Ukraine’s plan. But all available evidence suggests that it will not bring us an inch closer to ending the war.

In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:

— U.S. officials now increasingly acknowledge that American and Ukrainian interests “are diverging” as Ukraine pushes for direct NATO involvement in the war, according to David Sanger of the New York Times. “At this point, Ukraine has nothing left to lose from escalating with Russia,” Sanger wrote. “Mr. Biden still does.” The administration’s main concern is that Russia could use a nuclear weapon against Ukrainian troops in a bold attempt to reestablish deterrence, creating the possibility of full-scale nuclear war.

— France uninvited Russian officials from this week’s D-Day commemorations following harsh pushback from Western allies, according to Politico. Russian President Vladimir Putin attended previous Normandy anniversaries despite tensions with the West, including a 2014 commemoration on the heels of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. While Putin himself was not invited this time around, the prospect of any Russian representation was too much for many Western officials to countenance. Zelensky, for his part, will join the proceedings to highlight “how the landings resonate with the just struggle that the Ukrainian nation is waging today,” according to French officials.

— In a recent interview with TIME, Biden said he does not support Ukraine joining NATO at this time. “I am not prepared to support the NATOization of Ukraine,” he said, citing “significant corruption” that he witnessed on trips to the country during the Obama administration. (For more notable bits from the interview, check out Blaise Malley’s recent round-up for RS.)

— Russia’s attacks on Ukraine’s energy grid have forced the country to do nationwide rolling blackouts, stoking fears that Ukrainian civilians will have limited access to heating when winter comes around, according to the New York Times. “Experts have warned that power plants have suffered too much damage to be repaired before subzero temperatures set in, around December, which could plunge many people into dangerously cold living conditions,” the Times reported. Such a possibility risks boosting Ukrainian domestic opposition to continuing the war effort, which has already risen in recent months.

U.S. State Department news:

In a Wednesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller dismissed concerns of potential escalation following the Biden administration’s decision to allow Ukraine to strike some targets inside Russia with American weapons. “I would say it is Vladimir Putin that has continually escalated this conflict over and over again, including by these latest actions,” Miller said. “We will continue to take appropriate actions to respond to what President Putin has done, to allow Ukraine to defend itself.”
Analysis | QiOSK
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