Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Ukraine peace talks held in Switzerland, though Russia not invited

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy attends press conference before the Summit on Peace in Ukraine on Saturday in Lucerne, Switzerland.  (Sedat Suna)
By Zolan Kanno-Youngs, Anton Troianovski and Andrew E. Kramer New York Times

OBBÜRGEN, Switzerland – Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy played the starring role at a peace conference in Switzerland on Saturday aimed at shoring up support for Ukraine’s negotiating positions in its war with Russia with the backing of as many nations as possible.

But some countries questioned the value of peace talks that did not involve negotiations between the warring sides.

“There is no Russia here,” Zelenskyy said, explaining to dozens of world leaders gathering at an Alpine resort why Russia was not invited to the meeting. “Why? Because if Russia was interested in peace, there would be no war.”

The two-day conference, which was attended by U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, has emerged as Zelenskyy’s highest-profile effort to bring countries beyond Europe and North America onboard with his vision for ending the war: a peace plan that would involve Russia withdrawing from all of Ukraine, paying reparations and facing justice for war crimes.

Before the long-anticipated meeting – which Switzerland said would be attended by 57 heads of state and government – numerous non-Western countries balked at endorsing Zelenskyy’s full peace plan. So, Zelenskyy and the summit’s Swiss hosts decided to focus on three elements around which they hoped to find wide common ground: nuclear safety, food security, and humanitarian issues such as exchanging prisoners of war and returning Ukrainian children unlawfully taken to Russia.

“I’m here to stand with Ukraine and leaders from around the world in support of a just and lasting peace,” Harris said at the start of a meeting with Zelenskyy before the larger summit. “The United States is committed to helping Ukraine rebuild.”

However, as the summit opened, with world leaders taking turns speaking, Russia’s absence quickly emerged as a flashpoint. Prince Faisal bin Farhan, foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, told the gathering at the Bürgenstock resort, near Lucerne, that “any credible process will require Russia’s participation.”

Later, Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan said, “This summit could have been more result oriented if the other party to the conflict – Russia – was present in the room.”

Swiss President Viola Amherd acknowledged that “a peace process without Russia is inconceivable.” She added that the conference would also address “how and under what conditions Russia can be included in this process.”

The meeting will continue Sunday. Any joint statement that emerges from it will be closely scrutinized for hints on the direction of any future talks and Russia’s involvement.

China, the country widely seen as having the most influence on Russia, skipped the conference. Brazil did not send a high-level delegation.

Both countries are backing their own negotiating proposals, insisting that Russia and Ukraine need to negotiate directly.

“You don’t negotiate with your friends,” Celso Amorim, chief foreign policy adviser to Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva said in an interview. “You negotiate with your adversaries.”

Amorim, who was in nearby Geneva for a United Nations trade conference, added that peace talks not involving Russia were futile.

“I’m not defending one side or the other, but I, for one, am very clear that nothing will come from this meeting in Switzerland,” he said. “I respect the intentions, but it’s obvious that nothing will happen.”

Zelenskyy has said Ukraine’s intention is to negotiate with Russia collectively – after building consensus among Ukraine’s allies and as many neutral nations as possible. He said Saturday that once those countries agree on an “action plan” to end the war, “it will be communicated to the representatives of Russia” at a second conference that it would be invited to attend.

“At the second peace summit, we can fix the real end of the war,” Zelenskyy said. “Now, we are starting this path together.”

Jake Sullivan, U.S. President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, told reporters at the summit that Ukraine has indicated “this war must ultimately end in negotiation.” But he said Zelenskyy was currently focused on developing unified principles for peace with allies rather than specifying conditions for bringing Russia to the negotiating table.

“There’s not some secret conversation happening where he’s got a blueprint for an end to the war,” Sullivan said.

On Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin offered his own cease-fire plan, calling for Ukraine to cede territory and for Western nations to lift their economic sanctions. Ukraine and its allies denounced Putin’s suggestion as intended to undermine this weekend’s talks.

“He is not calling for negotiations,” Harris said at the summit. “He is calling for surrender.”

Biden, who has already traveled to Europe twice in recent weeks, for a D-Day memorial and a Group of 7 summit, skipped the gathering.

As Harris entered the conference, she echoed Zelenskyy’s agenda by announcing that the United States would provide $500 million in new financing to repair Ukraine’s energy infrastructure. She also said the United States would provide $379 million for refugees and displaced people in Ukraine.

At the summit, Harris called on leaders to “commit to the imperative of returning innocent children kidnapped by Russia” back to their homes.

Harris was scheduled to return to Washington on Saturday evening, but Sullivan said he will stay on to strategize about practical solutions to support the nuclear, energy and food security for Ukraine.

Sullivan criticized China for not attending the summit, even as he could not confirm Zelenskyy’s claims that China had discouraged other nations from joining the peace conference.

China has said that 45 countries “responded positively” to the Brazilian and Chinese proposal for talks, without naming the countries. Amorim said that he had no precise information about how many or which countries supported the proposal, but that the participation of China, as the country with the most influence over Russia, was key.

Oleksii Polegkyi, academic director of the Center for Public Diplomacy in Ukraine, said in an interview on Ukrainian television news on Thursday that Ukraine’s strategy for the summit could end up being a diplomatic misstep.

The gathering could end without a statement affirming Ukraine’s internationally recognized borders, he said, and the lack of such a statement could lay the groundwork for concessions on territory in an eventual settlement before extracting anything from Russia in return.

In any case, Polegkyi said, “our expectations from this summit may be somewhat overstated, because peace will not be achieved through summits.”

But Maria Zolkina, director of conflict studies at the Democratic Initiatives Foundation, a nongovernmental group, said the value to Ukraine of the gathering was broader than just a formal effort to shore up support for the three points in Ukraine’s peace plan.

The effort is helping promote Ukraine’s vision of a postwar order in Eastern Europe that would prevent future Russian expansionism, she said, adding that Ukraine wanted to muster support for talks on its terms, “not to start from Chinese, Russian or someone else’s proposals.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.