Key players meet Zelensky peace summit invite with disinterest

The lack of interest in the summit comes at a time when Ukraine's army is increasingly on the defensive

Key players meet Zelensky peace summit invite with disinterest

When Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky calls for world leaders to attend the fresh round of peace talks planned to take place in Switzerland, it is a sure sign that his hopes of winning his war with Russia are fast receding.

The summit, which has been planned for months, is due to be held in the luxury five-star Bürgenstock hotel high above Lake Lucerne and was arranged after Zelensky suggested to former Swiss president Alain Berset that neutral Switzerland should host such an event.

With Ukraine struggling to hold off a fresh Russian offensive in the northeast of the country, the talks—which are due to take place in mid-June—have acquired extra urgency for the Ukrainian leader.

The Swiss government has invited more than 160 countries and says the summit’s goal is "to provide a forum where world leaders discuss paths towards a just and lasting peace in Ukraine, based on international law and the UN Charter".

At present, only around 90 of the countries invited to attend are likely to have a presence. Among the issues likely to be raised at the summit are the exchange of political prisoners, the safety of nuclear plants, and the return of abducted children.

From Zelensky’s perspective, the summit provides a vital opportunity for Ukraine to demonstrate that global support for the Ukrainian war effort against Russia remains strong. This would explain his direct appeal to US President Joe Biden over the weekend to attend the summit, where he would be expected to lend his support to the Ukrainian cause.

American snub

Referring to the prospect of Biden not making an appearance in Switzerland, Zelensky commented that the American leader’s absence "would only be applauded by (Russian President Vladimir) Putin, personally applauded by Putin, and it would be a standing ovation".

Global leaders' lack of enthusiasm for the summit suggests that support for Ukraine's war effort is waning.

The White House has indicated that neither Biden nor Vice President Kamala Harris is planning to attend. Bloomberg reported earlier this week that Biden is expected to miss the peace summit in Switzerland because it conflicts with a campaign fundraiser in California he is scheduled to attend alongside celebrities like George Clooney, Julia Roberts, and others. While Washington says it supports the meeting, the White House has yet to commit to sending a high-level delegation.

Another major obstacle the summit faces is that Russia, the country that provoked the Ukraine conflict in the first place, has not been invited, even though the Kremlin has indicated that it would not attend anyway.

Relations between Russia and Switzerland have become strained after the Swiss imposed sanctions against Moscow following the invasion of Ukraine, which has resulted in the Swiss freezing an estimated $14bn in Russian assets. 

China, another of the world's major powers, is also not planning to send any of its senior officials to the summit, with the result that the most prominent participants are likely to be European leaders such as President Emmanuel Macron of France and Germany's Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

The distinct lack of enthusiasm among so many global leaders to take part in the summit certainly does not bode well for Zelensky, as it suggests that global support for Ukraine's war effort, which has proved vital to Kyiv during the first two years of fighting, is on the wane.

Military setbacks

The apparent lack of interest in the Swiss summit certainly comes at a bad time for Zelensky, with Ukrainian forces finding themselves increasingly on the defensive against a series of renewed Russian attacks.

With the war reaching a critical juncture, Kyiv has been forced to redirect thousands of troops to the north-eastern part of the front line around the city of Kharkiv to fend off Putin's assault, leaving its defences exposed elsewhere.

The inadequacy of Ukraine's air defences, for example, to deal with the Russian offensive was highlighted last weekend when two guided bombs destroyed a DIY superstore and garden centre in Kharkiv when it was crowded with shoppers. 

The lack of interest in the summit comes at a time when Ukraine's army is increasingly on the defensive.

A key factor in Russian President Vladimir Putin's ability to regain the initiative on the battlefield has been the perfect storm of military setbacks Ukraine has suffered in recent months that have severely limited its war-fighting effort.

The months of political wrangling in Congress over the Biden administration's plans to provide an additional $60bn in military aid meant Ukraine's frontline forces were starved of vital ammunition, especially air defences.

And even though Congress has now approved the package, the Ukrainians remain short of vital equipment, as the ability of the Russians to attack civilian targets in Kharkiv has demonstrated.

Another factor in Ukraine's waning war effort has been the restrictions key allies in the US and Europe have placed on the use of weapons supplied to Ukrainian forces, such as not allowing long-range missiles to be used to attack targets in Russia itself.

Containment aims

One of the key aims of the Biden administration, for example, has been to ensure the conflict does not escalate beyond Ukraine's borders, and US officials are concerned that any attempt by Ukraine to target Russian targets inside Russia, as opposed to Russian-occupied territory in Ukraine, could prompt a dangerous escalation in the conflict.

The Ukrainians, meanwhile, argue that these restrictions are hampering their efforts to defend themselves against Russian aggression at a time when Russia regularly launches attacks against Ukrainian infrastructure in an attempt to undermine Ukrainian morale.

Having the ability to target Russian positions inside Russia at a time when Zelensky claims the Russians are massing forces on Ukraine's northern border in readiness for a new offensive would significantly improve the Ukrainian forces to defend their territory. But so long as the Americans and Europeans insist on imposing restrictions on the Ukrainians' war-fighting capabilities, their ability to defend themselves will be extremely limited.

In such circumstances it is clear that, as matters currently stand, all the advantages lie with the Russians, a state of play that is unlikely to change irrespective of any peace talks that may take place in Switzerland in June.

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