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Swiss summit kick-starts Ukraine peace process

Bürgenstock peace conference
Peace summit delegates will be seeking consensus on the future of Ukraine. Keystone / Urs Flueeler

The stage is set for one of the most difficult and important tests of Swiss diplomacy to date: finding global consensus towards a peaceful end to the Ukraine war. 

This weekend delegates from 90 countries, including several heads of state, will attend a two-day peace conference at the Bürgenstock resort in central Switzerland. 

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The Swiss-hosted event does not propose to end the war in a single weekend. It is instead designed to lay the foundations for a multi-stage international effort to end the conflict. 

“The overarching objective of the summit is to inspire a future peace process,” the Swiss government said on Monday. 

+ Russian absence from peace summit ‘concerning’

Switzerland’s former chief negotiator Michael Ambühl, who once led talks between the Alpine state and the European Union, has applauded the intention of the summit.

“Switzerland has the opportunity to show it can play a role in international mediation,” he told the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ) newspaper. “Our diplomacy could show the world that Switzerland wants to continue to play a constructive role in the process.” 

+ Why China is staying away from the peace summit

Alongside that opportunity is the risk that the conference could achieve nothing concrete. Swiss Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis has compared the task ahead as “like climbing a mountain”. 

“There is nothing more uncertain than a summit on peace, especially when the involved parties are still militarily active,” he told a press conference on Monday. 

Bite-sized agenda 

Multiple countries, with divergent geopolitical interests, will be asked to give their initial views on where future peace lines could be drawn between Russia and Ukraine. To make matters more difficult, they are there to find common ground on this difficult subject. 


Even the politics of who will attend the conference and what they can talk about are extremely delicate. This means a last-minute publication of the ever-changing guest list and agenda. 

Switzerland has decided to break down the task into bite-sized pieces. Talks will address specific global concerns about the danger to nuclear power plants in the conflict zone, maintaining Ukrainian grain exports to the world and the humanitarian toll of the fighting. 

These topics were chosen because they have already been raised independently by several countries, Cassis explained. “If we can find solutions [to these points], this small step will give us the confidence to take a second step,” he said. 

+ Bürgenstock hotel historic venue of high-level meetings

According to the Tages-Anzeiger newspaper, these issues will be dealt with during break-out sessions, under the joint leadership of several countries to ensure that no single region dominates discussions.  

The conference will be deemed a success if it can produce a joint declaration of agreement at its conclusion. 

Russian absence 

There is another reason that the Bürgenstock conference cannot attempt a comprehensive peace plan: Russia has not been invited while Ukraine will be in attendance.  

“It’s important that the conference is not seen as an alliance against Russia,” Thomas Greminger, director of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, told the Swiss News Agency Keystone-ATS. 

“Switzerland could be accused of having launched a biased process”, if the conference doesn’t take the positions of both sides into consideration, he added. 

The Kremlin has condemned the conference as meaningless from the moment it was announced. 

+ 4,000 soldiers protect Bürgenstock conference

Switzerland could have sent an invitation regardless, but feared this would prompt Ukraine to pull out, according to Cassis. “We had to weigh up the risks and make a decision based on that,” he said. 

A knock-on effect of that decision can be seen in the Bürgenstock guest list. Of the 160 nations invited, only 90 have agreed to come. China and Saudi Arabia have no interest in a conference that excludes Russia. 

Brazil and South Africa are among other countries that have expressed reservations by refusing to send heads of state or high-ranking ministers to Switzerland.  

What next? 

It remains to be seen whether the Bürgenstock conference will spawn a direct successor. Talks are already underway with Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey as the next venue, according to the Tages-Anzeiger

Earlier in the week Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visited one of the possible hosts, Saudi Arabia, to hold talks with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. 

Russia needs to join the peace process at some stage, says Cassis. “It’s not a question of will Russia come on board, but when.” 

But the Kremlin might instead choose to come to a different negotiating table, sponsored by another country, such as China. 

“China has stated its intention of conducting parallel peace proceedings. It’s been suggested that if it’s not possible to have everybody together, then we may need parallel processes,” said Cassis, who added that Switzerland would welcome alternative efforts to bring about peace. 

Edited by Balz Rigendinger/ts 

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