World leaders call for just peace in Ukraine, but Russia’s absence weighs heavily

As delegates gathered in Switzerland, Vladimir Putin offered a ceasefire proposal

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen (left), Swiss president Viola Amherd (centre) and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy attend a joint press conference after the Summit on Peace in Ukraine in Switzerland on Sunday. Photograph: Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu via Getty Images

Bloomsday atop Switzerland’s Bürgenstock mountain. Brown cows nod in manicured meadows while world leaders assure Ukraine it will wake from its historical nightmare.

After more than 800 days of conflict, the conclusions of a two-day gathering of 100 countries and international organisations echoed a line from Ulysses worth reading twice: “With will will we withstand.”

The mountaintop Swiss gathering was high-level diplomacy and global group therapy, as participants from Fiji to Suriname lined up to restate – for their mutual benefit and that of any Russians listening – their commitment to the UN charter, human rights, sovereignty of nations and the inviolability of borders.

Everything, in other words, under siege by Russia in Ukraine. In an open plenum, with just three minutes to make their point, world leaders made sure they did.


“There are simple rules,” said Spanish leader Pedro Sánchez. “One country cannot invade another. Food is not a weapon. Nuclear threats are unacceptable. If we do not act according to these rules ... there is no international order.”

Taoiseach Simon Harris, seated in alphabetical order beside Israel, called for a consistent approach to global rules and noted that “what’s happening in Gaza cannot be ignored at an international peace summit”.

On Ukraine, Kyiv secured a final communique that calls the threat or use of nuclear weapons “inadmissible” and called for the return of all prisoners of war and at least 20,000 abducted children. Above all, the document defines a just peace as one adhering to “the principles of respect for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of all states”.

All European attendees signed up, even Moscow-friendly Hungary and Serbia.

“We want more people at the next table,” said Mr Harris. “Of course, ultimately, Russia will need to be part of the process.”

James Joyce once noted that absence is the highest form of presence – and Russia’s absence left a mark, though live-streams and translations into six languages including Russian and Chinese opened Bürgenstock to the world.

As delegates gathered in Switzerland, Vladimir Putin offered a ceasefire proposal requiring Ukraine to cede territory and demilitarise.

US national security adviser Jake Sullivan spoke for most by saying the proposal “defies the UN charter, basic morality and basic common sense”.

In an open plenum, Saudi foreign minister Prince Faisal bin al Saud said “any credible process will require Russian participation and we hope the outcome of the summit reflects those aims”.

Though the final agreement carries his words almost verbatim, Saudi Arabia did not join the communique.

Similarly absent was the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which warned that the outlook “remains bleak if we cannot bring the war to a negotiated settlement”.

In total 13 participating countries declined to join the document, including India, South Africa, Thailand, Indonesia, Mexico and Brazil, the latter listed as an “observer”.

Last month Brazil and China, which didn’t attend the Swiss talks, issued its own peace plan which calls for no expansion of the battlefield, no escalation of fighting and no provocation by any party.

On Sunday Volodymyr Zelenskiy said he hoped others would join the Bürgenstock communiqué and build enough momentum and pressure for holdouts to move.

“When Brazil and China join the principles that unite the whole civilised world,” said Mr Zelenskiy, “we will be glad to hear their opinion.”

After a long week on the road in western Europe, a fiery Mr Zelenskiy denied his talk of peace reflected a stalled military offensive and pointed to a series of military deals and economic aid deals to counter talk of western fatigue.

“This summit says that international support is not weakening, it is strong,” he said.

With gallows humour, the Ukrainian leader suggested on Sunday his homeland was an exception to the old adage that guns fall silent when diplomats talk: “I guess that means Putin is no diplomat.”

Before departing he rammed home one final point with the world’s media: the fall of international law would make Ukraine the beginning: “Then, the day after tomorrow, he, Comrade Putin, will come.”

So what was the Bürgenstock effect? Ulysses-fluent cynics might call it an indeterminate response to inaffirmative interrogation. Some Swiss observers saw Bern pushing the talks to counter criticism it has interpreted its neutrality too strictly on Ukraine.

The US, through Mr Sullivan, was not alone in praising the gathering as a “critical milestone” for reaffirming the legal basis for a just peace.

“We know that peace in Ukraine will not be achieved in one step, it will be a journey,” European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said, calling for “patience and determination”.

President William Ruto of Kenya, who headed a breakout group on food security, expressed surprise others were unaware of “the impact of this war, far away on different continents”, such as spiralling fertiliser costs.

“A threat to peace anywhere is also a threat to peace everywhere,” he added.

Amid influential Global South holdouts, northern Europe delegates recalled their painful history with Russia.

Finnish president Alexander Stubb, whose father was born in territory lost to the Soviet Union, cited his country’s Nobel Peace Prize laureate and ex-president Martti Ahtisaari and his observation on war: “What humans begin, humans can also end”.

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin