Russia, China absent as world leaders meet for Ukraine peace conference

China’s non-participation in Switzerland summit raises questions over point of event, which Russia dismissed as ‘futile’.

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky (C) is welcomed by Switzerland's Ambassador to Ukraine Felix Baumann (L) and Deputy Head of Swiss Protocol Manuel Irman (R) as he arrives at the Zurich airport on June 14, 2024, ahead of the Ukraine Peace Summit in Switzerland. World leaders from countries around the world will gather in the luxury Burgenstock resort, central Switzerland this weekend to try to work out a way towards a peace process for Ukraine -- albeit without Russia. (Photo by MICHAEL BUHOLZER / POOL / AFP)
Ukraine's Zelenskyy (centre) is welcomed by Switzerland's ambassador to Ukraine Felix Baumann (left) and other officials as he arrives at the Zurich airport before the Ukraine summit [Michael Buholzer/AFP]

World leaders are gathering in Switzerland for a summit aimed at pressuring Russia to end its war in Ukraine, but the absence of powerful allies of Moscow such as China is expected to blunt its potential impact.

United States Vice President Kamala Harris and the leaders of the United Kingdom, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan are among those who joined Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy at the summit starting on Saturday.

All told, host Switzerland said more than 50 heads of state, as well as foreign ministers and lower-level delegations from dozens more countries were set to attend. India, Turkey and Hungary, which maintain friendlier relations with Russia, also joined the event.

But China has stayed away after Russia was frozen out of proceedings after Moscow dismissed the event as “futile”.

Without China, Western hopes of isolating Russia have faded, while recent military reverses on the battlefield have put Ukrainian forces on the back foot.

“The summit risks showing the limits of Ukrainian diplomacy,” said Richard Gowan, United Nations director at the International Crisis Group.

“Nonetheless, it is also a chance for Ukraine to remind the world that it is defending the principles of the UN Charter.”

Nevertheless, speaking to reporters on Saturday, Zelenskyy predicted “history being made” at the conference.

Speaking alongside Swiss President Viola Amherd, Zelenskyy said the gathering itself was already a positive development.

“We have succeeded in bringing back to the world the idea that joint efforts can stop war and establish a just peace,” he said.

He added those in attendance must determine “what a just peace means for the world and how it can be achieved in a lasting way”.

That vision, he said, can then be “communicated to the representatives of Russia”.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, called the gathering an important step towards progress.

“Many questions of peace and security will be discussed, but not the very biggest. That was always the plan,” he said, speaking to Welt TV before travelling to Switzerland.

“This is a small plant that needs to be watered, but of course, also with the perspective that more can then come out of it.”

Meanwhile, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Kenya all noted Russia’s absence as a hurdle.

“I must also note that this summit could have been more result-oriented if the other party to the conflict, Russia, was present in the room,” Turkey’s Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan said at the summit.

Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud added that credible talks would involve “difficult compromise”.

Moscow’s demands

On Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said his country would end the war if Ukraine agreed to drop its NATO ambitions and hand over the entirety of four provinces claimed by Moscow – demands Kyiv swiftly rejected as tantamount to surrender.

Ukraine, the US and other Western allies swiftly dismissed Putin’s demands, with Germany’s Scholz saying the “proposal wasn’t meant seriously”.

On Saturday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen warned against any agreements that saw Russia remain in Ukrainian territory.

“Freezing the conflict today, with foreign troops occupying Ukrainian land, is not the answer,” she said. “It is a recipe for future wars of aggression.”

“Instead, we need to support a comprehensive, just and sustainable peace for Ukraine, one that restores Ukraine’s sovereignty and its territorial integrity,” she said.

Some saw Putin’s statement as reflecting growing confidence that Russian forces have the upper hand in the war.

Russian troops, who already control vast swaths of eastern and southern Ukraine, have made territorial gains in recent months.

However, Ukrainian forces had recently regained large tracts of territory, notably near the southern city of Kherson and the northern city of Kharkiv.

Speaking to Al Jazeera from Kyiv, Peter Zalmayev, the director of the Eurasia Democracy Initiative (EDI), said a pledge by G7 leaders earlier this week to use interest from frozen Russian funds for a $50bn loan to Ukraine will serve as a “lifeline”.

Still, he said the war, which remains “lopsided” in Moscow’s favour, has already turned into one of attrition for both countries.

Talks will likely be the only way to broker an eventual peace, he said, adding, “The sides are as far away from each other as they’ve been throughout this entire conflict.”

Russia has cast what it calls its special military operation in Ukraine as part of a broader struggle with the West, which it says wants to bring Russia to its knees.

Ukraine and the West reject this and accuse Russia of waging an illegal war of conquest.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies