Ukraine quandary: Questions of war and peace hang over Zelenskiy’s Switzerland summit

Asked what is the point of peace talks when Russia is not attending, Swiss foreign minister says the only alternative is ‘to lean back and do nothing’

Aerial photograph of June 4th, 2024, shows the Burgenstock resort above Lake Lucerne that will host a Ukraine peace summit on June 15th-16th, 2024. Photograph: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty

Volodymyr Zelenskiy is unlikely to leave Switzerland’s picturesque Bürgenstock resort on Sunday with the same happy memories as Audrey Hepburn.

Wearing a garland of roses, she married fellow actor Mel Ferrer here 70 years ago among the Swiss mountains and lakes – and then went on to star as Natasha to his Andrei in a film version of War and Peace.

Its condensed retelling of the sprawling Tolstoy novel focused on family drama and a core dilemma: whether to keep fighting back against foreign invasion or let the aggressor – in this case Napoleonic France – wear itself out.

A similar question hangs over the high-security gathering on the Bürgenstock mountain overlooking Lucerne in central Switzerland.


After 28 months of devastating war, is any route towards what the hopeful Swiss hosts call a “comprehensive, just and lasting peace” emerging?

Swiss soldiers prepare a heliport in Obburgen, next to the luxury Burgenstock resort, Switzerland, that will host a Ukraine peace summit on June 15th-16th, 2024. Photograph: Elodie Le Maou/AFP/Getty

The summit originated a year ago as a request in a video address by Zelenskiy to Swiss MPs.

This week, Swiss foreign minister Ignazio Cassis acknowledged he had been unable to resolve a central dilemma of the guest list until Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov told him Moscow had no plans to attend.

Zelenskiy vows to pursue peace diplomacy ‘on our terms’Opens in new window ]

That left Berne free not to invite Russia, and thus keep Ukraine on board.

Asked this week about the point of peace talks with one party to the war missing, Cassis added: “The only alternative was to lean back and do nothing, and we didn’t want that.”

Swiss officials say the agenda of the gathering – now called “talks on peace” – will focus on issues such as nuclear energy security, grain exports, food security and prisoners of war. Some delegations expect a final declaration to underline that Russia’s invasion and occupation is a violation of international law.

Swiss federal president Viola Amherd frames Bürgenstock as “creating a platform so that talks can even happen”.

President Volodymyr Zelensky stands in front of a Patriot air defence missile system. Photograph: Jens Buettner/dpa/AP

With its 150-year history, the Bürgenstock resort has a track record on talks about talks. In 2004 it hosted UN negotiations for an – ultimately unsuccessful – effort to reunite Cyprus. A 2002 peace agreement sealed here eventually led, in 2011, to an independent state of South Sudan.

For a gathering dismissed in Moscow as a non-event, Bürgenstock has attracted considerable interest in Russian media, with one report denouncing it as a satanists’ summit.

“The disinformation is so extreme that it has had little to do with reality,” remarked Amherd, who is also Swiss defence minister.

As well as high-level security on the ground, Swiss organisers say they are braced for major cyber attacks. They have identified a series of fake news reports, allegedly from mainstream outlets, about fatigue over western aid for Ukraine.

The opposite appeared to be the case this week: Zelenskiy arrives in Bürgenstock boosted by a donors’ conference in Berlin, new weapons deliveries from Germany, a loan package from G7 members in Bari and a 10-year bilateral security deal with the US.

His priority for the Bürgenstock conference, Zelenskiy said this week, was “not to hand [the initiative]... to Russia”.

“The Russian initiative was demonstrated [on] the day of the full-scale invasion,” he added. “Their vision is the occupation of our country.”

Recent gains means Russia now controls nearly one fifth of Ukrainian territory. In a Bundestag address on Tuesday, Zelenskiy insisted he was open to diplomacy and a peace deal – but on Kyiv’s terms.

These include the withdrawal of Russian troops from the entirety of Ukrainian territory to its 1991 borders, including Crimea.

Even on Friday, mystery persisted around the Bürgenstock gathering’s goals and full attendance list.

Confirmed attendees include Ukraine’s western allies: leaders from France, Germany, Italy, Britain, Canada and Japan. Also attending is Taoiseach Simon Harris and lower-level delegations from countries that have maintained economic ties to Russia, such as India, Turkey and Hungary.

US president Joe Biden will skip Bürgenstock for a political fundraiser at home and will be represented instead by vice-president Kamala Harris.

Months of effort to woo China, a country with Vladimir Putin’s ear, failed to pay off for Ukraine. That prompted angry claims from Zelenskiy that Russia was working through Beijing diplomats to discourage other countries from attending.

China disputes this and says it is staying away because talks without both conflict parties will be just a talking shop.

While Beijing pushes a separate peace plan, backed by Brazil and with supportive signals from Moscow, the Ukrainian leader hasn’t given up entirely on the Global South.

After talks in Jeddah earlier this week, Zelenskiy praised the “productive and energetic” efforts of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for a “rapid return to peace”.

Even ahead of Bürgenstock, expectations are building that the event will prepare the ground for a follow-up gathering soon in Saudi Arabia.

This week, Andriy Yermak, a close Zelenskiy aide, said: “We are looking for the possibility of a second summit to invite a representative of Russia.”

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