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Ukraine's peace summit lacks clout as Russia, China and others stay away

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  • Ukraine's leadership has been talking about this weekend's peace summit in Switzerland for months, trying to drum up enthusiasm for Kyiv's peace plan.
  • At least 90 countries and organizations are set to attend the summit on June 15-16 in the Swiss resort of Bürgenstock, organizers said, but 160 were invited.
  • Crucially, however, Russia won't be attending (and wasn't invited after flagging, very publicly, that it would not participate) and nor will other big global influences, China and Saudi Arabia.

Ukraine's leadership has been talking about this weekend's peace summit in Switzerland for months, desperately trying to drum up international enthusiasm for — and investment in — Kyiv's peace plan.

The attempt to corral as many countries as possible to participate in the event has worked to a certain extent, with around 90 states and organizations set to attend the Summit on Peace in Ukraine (or Global Peace Summit, as Ukraine calls it) on June 15-16 in the Swiss resort of Bürgenstock. In total, 160 countries were invited to the summit.

Crucially, however, Russia won't be attending (it wasn't invited after flagging, very publicly, that it would not participate), nor will influential countries like China and Saudi Arabia, calling into question how effective the summit can be at creating the foundations for a peace process.

Other nations have decided against sending representatives or are only sending junior officials to the summit. Brazil, India, South Africa and Turkey — nations that enjoy cordial relations with Russia — have not yet confirmed what delegation they will send to the summit, if any.

The final list of participants will be released Friday and could change in the last moments amid a report that the number of attendees has fallen in recent days.

In any case, the summit's Swiss organizers said earlier this week that around half of the confirmed participants are from Europe, with the remainder from Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East.

Russia has repeatedly slammed the gathering, saying a peace summit without its participation is meaningless. China, meanwhile, said it did not want to attend a conference that did not have equal participation from both opposing parties. Other absentees have cited similar views.

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy accused Russia and China of working together to sabotage the summit and pressurizing other countries not to attend. China denied the accusation.

Russia's pro-Kremlin media has frequently denigrated the summit in the run-up to the event, however, displaying more than a hint of relish when countries said they would not attend. The Swiss government also said it had witnessed an uptick in cyberattacks and disinformation ahead of the summit, although it did not accuse Russia of being responsible.

Conference lacks clout

The absence of Russia and its geopolitical allies from the gathering clearly weakens the summit's potential reach and impact.

"Zelenskyy's administration has been working hard for months to attract the widest possible participation at the highest level in the event. In this respect, the absence of countries like China or Saudi Arabia – which hold leverage over Russia – will be a significant setback," Andrius Tursa, Central and Eastern Europe advisor at consultancy Teneo, told CNBC Tuesday.

What's perhaps worse for Kyiv is that even its staunchest ally, the U.S., is not sending its own head of state, with President Joe Biden opting to attend a campaign fundraiser in California in Hollywood instead.

The White House said Vice President Kamala Harris and national security advisor Jake Sullivan will represent the U.S. at the event. Zelenskyy was clearly not impressed, saying Biden's absence would be met with a "personal, standing applause by Putin" in Moscow.

CNBC has contacted Ukraine's foreign ministry for further comment on the summit.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (C) and US President Joe Biden (R) take part in the official international ceremony commemorating the 80th anniversary of the Allied landings at the Omaha Beach Memorial in Normandy, France on June 6, 2024. 
Ukrainian Presidency | Anadolu | Getty Images
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (C) and US President Joe Biden (R) take part in the official international ceremony commemorating the 80th anniversary of the Allied landings at the Omaha Beach Memorial in Normandy, France on June 6, 2024. 

Shelby Magid, deputy director of the Atlantic Council's Eurasia Center, said Kyiv's frustration was understandable given its diplomatic efforts to court support and keep Ukraine high on the global agenda.

"Despite Ukraine's vast efforts, including Zelenskyy's extensive and impassioned international travel, calls, and statements encouraging attendance from all countries and organizations invited, that goal has not been fully met," she said in analysis this week.

The summit's Swiss organizers have remained optimistic about the summit, although they have played down what it can achieve, describing it as a "conference for peace, not a peace conference" that aims "to inspire a future peace process."

Swiss President Viola Amherd urged as many countries as possible to take part, however, telling reporters in the Swiss capital Bern on Monday that "the broadest possible participation is important in order to be able to initiate a broadly backed process."

The government also defended the decision not to invite Russia, with Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis stating Monday that "we have always been open to inviting Russia to the conference – but Moscow has made it clear several times that it has no interest in participating."

Barriers to peace

The summit is not the first of its kind. Several other lower-level meetings have been held over the last year in which Ukraine has promoted its 10-point peace plan calling for the full withdrawal of Russian troops and the restoration of its territorial integrity, among other conditions.

The events have had little impact on the battlefield, however, other than to emphasize Ukraine's need for more weaponry from its allies; fighting remains as intense as ever in the south, east and north-east of the country, where Russia launched a new offensive several months ago.

Volodymyr Dubovyk, from the Democratic Resilience Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), told CNBC that the summit "would be of little significance if one actually thinks about getting closer to peace."

"It does not, indeed, differ substantially, from the previous similar meetings. The only difference is, perhaps, the sheer number of the countries to be represented," he told CNBC in emailed comments Wednesday.

"The countries to be represented at the summit are, most probably, going to support the Ukrainian view. So, yes, it is an important forum to show that Ukraine is still on the agenda and that it still enjoys a certain high level of support. If this is a main objective, then it would probably meet the expectations."

Dubovyk dismissed the absence of countries like China and Saudi Arabia, saying their presence at previous, similar meetings had not helped to bring peace closer.

Rescuers extinguish the fire at the site of a Russian missile strike on the city's private residential buildings area on May 10, 2024 in Kharkiv, Ukraine.
Global Images Ukraine | Global Images Ukraine | Getty Images
Rescuers extinguish the fire at the site of a Russian missile strike on the city's private residential buildings area on May 10, 2024 in Kharkiv, Ukraine.

The summit comes as tensions between Russia and Ukraine remain incredibly high.

Moscow in Sept. 2022 declared that four partially-occupied Ukrainian regions were now part of the Russian Federation, making any peace talks or political settlement to the conflict far harder.

Russia also looks extremely unlikely to "give up" — or be seen to be giving up — territory, despite its illegal land grab.

Although this weekend's gathering has some value in stimulating "a discussion about various elements of the negotiated settlement of the conflict at some point in the future," Teneo's Tursa noted, he's not expecting big things.

"I do not think the event will have any impact on the conduct of the war, especially in the near term," he said.

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