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18 June 2024

Ukraine’s peace summit deserved to fail

This is not how peace is done.

By Wolfgang Münchau

The Swiss “Peace Summit” on Ukraine failed – deservedly so. Of the 102 state representatives who gathered in Bürgenstock on 15-16 June, 22 refused to sign the final declaration. It was clearly not a peace summit since Russia was absent. But it was also not a solidarity summit. Some of the world’s largest countries, like India and Brazil, were amongst those who refused to be co-opted into the Western position. This is not how peace is done.

It is also not how war is done either. I see a lot of confusion amongst some Western supporters of Ukraine between peace and victory. I concluded some time ago that the West has no strategy for victory. A peace agreement that is favourable to Ukraine is the best outcome now. The goal of victory would have required that the West, like Russia, shift towards a war economy, since our role is to pay for the war. Most Western countries do not want to do this except for Northern Europe and the Baltic nations.

We fund our support for Ukraine through borrowing but almost every country is close to the limit of its fiscal capacity. Since war is not a productive investment, it constitutes a fiscal expense, one that would need to be offset against cuts in other expenditures or through higher taxes. None of the large Western countries is willing to make such trade-offs. Eternal declarations of support and solidarity are cheap.

Ukraine’s two most important supporters in the West are the US and Germany. A deadlock in Congress delayed the US’s military support package by more than six months, which helped shift the military balance in eastern Ukraine in Russia’s favour.

Germany is Ukraine’s largest supporter in the EU. Olaf Scholz, the German chancellor, never misses an opportunity to signal his red lines. Earlier this month, the German permanent representative to the EU, Michael Clauss, forced a second delay in the EU’s latest sanction package against Russia. What Germany objects to is the idea that exporters would be forced to guarantee that their products do not find their way into the Russian markets.

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It is worth dwelling on this for a moment. Germany is saying that sanctions are fine, as long as they are not real. When you sanction imports, then by definition you sanction exports. Right now, Western goods enter the Russian markets through third countries like Kazakstan. There is no shortage of Western goods in the shops of Moscow. The current policy is a complete sham, we are pretending to impose sanctions when we are not.

If you are not willing to do what it takes to win the war, your second-best strategy is to settle. The summit did not leave us any wiser here. The only conceivable point of a conference without Russia would have been to map out a pathway towards one with Russia. That did not happen.

Russia’s own peace demands – the acquisition of four Ukrainian oblasts, or provinces, and a demand for de-militarisation of Ukraine – are obviously a non-starter. Russia’s war goal is the full occupation of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. Russia occupies most of Luhansk, but only parts of the other oblasts. Those four provinces occupy 15 per cent of the Ukrainian land mass.

Likewise, Ukraine’s demand that Russia must withdraw its troops from all occupied Ukrainian territory as a precondition is also a non-starter given the military situation on the ground. I can see that no one would want to make concessions before the talks had even started. But once they do, positions will crumble on both sides, leaving a lot of disappointed fanboys fuming.

My best guess is that an eventual agreement will be based on the military situation on the ground, and will cut through provinces as it so often has in past conflicts. In the Winter War between Russia and Finland in 1939, for example, Russia obtained most, but not all, of the province of Karelia, of which the smaller part is left in Finland.

For the West the overriding objective of a peace settlement is to prevent Russia from regrouping and invading Ukraine again after a few years. That would require military support for Ukraine beyond the war. It would also require more military spending in Europe. There is currently no majority support to extend Nato membership for Ukraine. Here, too, we have to make do with second best scenarios like security guarantees.

The big problem for the EU is our own political uncertainty and economic weakness. The era of Emmanuel Macron is coming to an end even if he hangs on as a lame-duck president. The era of Scholz looks like it will end before it becomes an era. Rishi Sunak will be gone in three weeks. Pedro Sánchez, the prime minister of Spain, is just barely hanging on. I still see a strong willingness to strengthen Europe’s defences in the long run, but I struggle to see majorities for a permanent proxy war with Russia.

The upside of the failed conferences in Switzerland is that it charts a way forward. Some of those who refused to sign up to the final declaration could emerge as neutral peace-brokers. This has got to be someone with no ulterior motive – not an ally of Russia, but also a country that keeps its distance from the West. The Brics – a group that nowadays consists of ten countries including Russia and China – has lately become more active in global diplomacy, for example in the Middle East.

For the West, the conference marked yet another missed opportunity to agree on a strategic goal. We can be relied upon to signal vacuous solidarity, stating our red lines, and lecture the world on morality. But we lost something we ourselves invented – the art of strategic diplomacy.

[See also: Meloni’s support for Ukraine is good political strategy]

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