Lucerne: Zelensky’s diplomatic challenge

Numbers are crucial. Kyiv’s list included 190 names; Switzerland has invited 160 delegations, including members of the G7, G20, BRICS, EU, UN, OSCE, Council of Europe, and even two religious representatives from the Vatican and the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. On June 9, Bern announced that 90 “states and organisations” would attend, although their goals may differ. Russia has not been invited “at this stage,” but it was noted that “no peace process can be concluded without Russia, even if it is not present at the first meeting.”

For months, Zelensky and key ministers have packed their agendas with trips abroad, bilateral meetings, and press conferences. Zelensky’s schedule included high-profile events such as his star-like participation in the D-Day commemoration in Normandy, a special meeting with President Biden, discussions with President Macron in Paris, a gala dinner at the Elysée, an impromptu address to the French National Assembly, followed by meetings with Chancellor Scholz in Berlin, and attending a conference on Ukraine’s reconstruction. From Berlin, he traveled to the G-7 summit in Italy to discuss, among other topics, the use of interest on frozen Russian assets to aid Ukraine, before heading to Lucerne.

Since January, however, the military situation and global context around Ukraine have changed, with significant implications for the Peace Summit. Notably:

1. Absence of Presidents Biden and Xi

For Zelensky, the ultimate diplomatic triumph would have been the participation of both Presidents Biden and Xi. This, he argued, would demonstrate to the Kremlin the international rejection of aggressive and illegal actions across borders. However, on June 3, the White House announced that President Biden, now focused on his re-election campaign, would send Vice President Kamala Harris and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan to Lucerne. This disappointment was tempered by Zelensky’s triumphant reception in Normandy and bilateral talks with Biden, who promised an additional $220 million in aid.

China, meanwhile, never intended to support a united front against Russia in favor of Ukraine. Even less rallying the BRICS or the “Global South”, especially when Washington was promising more sanctions against Chinese companies, and EU more import duties. Beijing took also badly Zelensky’s appeals to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan; to India to give a “strong signal” by attending Lucerne. Faced with China’s firm position, Zelensky accused it of manoeuvring to “prevent” some countries to attend. He did so from a security conference in Singapore before flying to Philippines, all which for Beijing looked the excursion of a pro-American messenger into the Indian-Pacific region.  Beijing’s final message was that an international peace conference should have three key elements: recognition by both Russia and Ukraine, equal participation by all parties, and a fair discussion of all peace plans.

2. European Parliament Elections

They resulted in a shift towards right-wing and populist parties, influencing the selection of new EU leadership at the Commission and the Council. Chancellor Scholtz and president Macron emerged seriously weakened. This reinforced the Commission’s determination to advance Ukraine’s EU accession before July 1, when Hungary assumes the Council presidency. Despite this, support for Ukraine remains nuanced, particularly regarding the level of support and the associated costs as the war continues. In short, less inhibitions to discuss all the implication of “supporting Ukraine as much as it takes, including for foreign relations and national economies.

3. Volatility in Ukraine

Allies and donors value continuity and predictability, and recent changes among key officials with whom they deal in military and civilian matters have caused distress. The latest episode involves the resignation of Mustafa Nayyem, overseeing reconstruction, just before he was due to attend the Berlin conference to discuss reconstruction, including of the energy sector. Previous changes, such as the dismissal of Reconstruction Minister Oleksandr Kubrakov, have also raised concerns.

4. Absence of Russia

Not invited to Lucerne, Russia declared the summit a “waste of time.” Nonetheless, it engaged in extensive diplomatic activity to counter the summit’s objectives. The president and the foreign minister multiplied visits and contacts, from China to the Middle East, Latin America, Belarus and Central Asia. President Putin reiterated his readiness for talks based on terms unacceptable to Ukraine and its allies. They guessed that, confronted with many cancellations, the goal of the summit will be altered. Indeed, the Swiss foreign minister announced that participants would not solely discuss Zelensky’s plan but would also work towards a “road map” for involving Russia in future peace processes, and will address issues like nuclear and food security, freedom of navigation, and humanitarian concerns. This represents a shift from a discussion on Zelensky’s peace plan

In conclusion, while the Peace Summit may not quickly resolve the crisis, its mere existence represents progress. The circumstances surrounding its preparation also provide useful signals to President Zelensky: first, that with significant international support and funding at stake, Kyiv must navigate reduced space for purely internal policy and accept external “interference”; second, that Zelensky must enhance his diplomatic skills, relying less on communication and more on cold assessments of the geopolitical realities.

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