Can High-Level Diplomacy Turn the Tide of the Ukraine War? – PRIO Blogs

World politics in the first half of June is set to be enlivened not only by elections in such major powers as India, Mexico and South Africa, but also by a heavy concentration of international summits, conferences and visits.

Volodymyr Zelensky meets with Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. in Manila, Philippines. Zelensky arrived in Manila following his speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. Photo: Jam Sta Rosa – Pool/Getty Images

Agendas are rich and diverse, as many global issues demand collective action, but one 27-months old calamity continues to demand priority attention – the Ukraine War.

The high-intensity trench battles remain effectively deadlocked, but the political context of this long war keeps evolving, and the joint efforts of key world leaders as well as initiatives of smaller states may make a difference in deciding its outcome.

Shangri La

The first high-profile event in the sequence of June fora was the traditional Shangri La gathering in Singapore organized by the IISS and attended by many security officials, providing inter alia a useful opportunity for talks between US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Chinese Defense Minister Dong Jun. The discussions were understandably focused on conflict management in the dynamic Asia-Pacific region, but Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky opted to make a long trip in order to make his case for broadening support for defeating the Russian aggression. He was quite disappointed in China’s political drift closer to Moscow’s war-mongering, but continued his efforts in the Philippines, finding warmer response.

D-Day Anniversary

A very different international gathering happened in Normandy, France, where many dignitaries, including US President Joe Biden came to mark the 80th anniversary of allied landing, known as the D-Day. For Biden, this ceremony will constitute a part of his state visit to France, but more importantly – and opportunity to connect with the success of President Ronald Reagan, who made a memorable speech at Pointe Du Hoc, which paved the way for his re-election in 1984. Biden seeks to ascertain the strength of the trans-Atlantic ties and to reassure the concerned Europeans in his ability to gain the second presidential term, reducing the need in “Trump-proofing”. President Emmanuel Macron aspires to be the strongest supporter of Ukraine, confirming its right to use Western weapons for strikes deep into Russian territory, much to delight of Zelensky, who didn’t miss a chance to partake in the Normandy celebrations.

Ukraine Recovery & G7 Summit

Two events that are scheduled to take place nearly simultaneously are the Ukraine Recovery Conference (Berlin, June 11-12) and the G7 summit (Borgo Egnazia, Italy, June 13-15), and both are set to strengthen the economic capacity, which is crucial for prevailing in the long war of attrition.

The first one is more narrow-focused and is not that much about gathering new pledges for rehabilitating Ukraine – and more about coordinating aid, particularly for sustaining the work on rebuilding the energy infrastructure targeted by constant Russian missile and drone attacks.

The second one, which happens to be the 50th in the long track record of this exclusive “club”, will deal with a wide range of issues and engage with many invited guests, including President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but the Ukraine War is certain to be a major focus of attention, and Zelensky will try to make the maximum from this opportunity. One particular question ripe for a decision is the utilization of profits from the Russian financial assets frozen in the European banks (first of all, Euroclear securities depository) for Ukraine’s reconstruction, which will signify a major step toward a complete appropriation of these assets, amounting to some 300 billion euro.

Bürgenstock – Russia’s absence

One common feature in all these events is Russia’s absence, and this is in fact an issue for the event scheduled for June 15-16 in Bürgenstock, Switzerland – the Summit on Peace in Ukraine.

For many potential participants, it is rather clear that it makes little sense to discuss prospects of peace-making without Russia; but alas, Moscow’s uncompromising position makes it even less productive to discuss these prospects with Russia.

President Vladimir Putin insists that any peace talks must acknowledge the “reality on the ground”, which essentially means rewarding his aggression, a disagreeable proposition even for the stake-holders that entertain the vision of freezing the war along the current trench lines. Zelensky has invested huge efforts in organizing this summit and is disappointed in China’s decision not to attend, while Beijing denies his accusations in sabotaging the gathering. Russian diplomacy has certainly attacked Zelensky’s plan furiously and relentlessly, but is still can yield important results in expanding the support for a just peace beyond the Western coalition that is steadily increasing the volume and the quality of its military aid to Ukraine, rejecting Moscow’s nuclear brinksmanship.

St. Petersburg Economic Forum

Seeking to escape from isolation, Putin tries to boost the profile of the St. Petersburg Economic Forum, an event to which hundreds of Western business and political leaders used to flock. This time, however, his agenda is reduced to meetings with the leaders of Bolivia and Zimbabwe, and the advertised opportunities of doing business with Russia attract few entrepreneurs from the Global South conscious of the reputation risks. The summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) scheduled for early July in Astana, Kazakhstan may offer a better opportunity for Putin to re-confirm his international credentials. The agreed accession of Belarus will, however, hardly erode China’s traditional leadership in the SCO focused on consolidation of its positions in Central Asia.

NATO summit in Washington

Perhaps the most consequential of all fora will be the NATO summit in Washington D.C. on 9-11 July, where Ukraine expects to step on a “bridge” to full membership in the Alliance. At the previous summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, Zelensky pushed the accession claim rather too hard and was disappointed with the hardheaded realism of most member-states. He has learned from that mistake and can gain many tangible gains this time by tapping into the deep pool of support for Ukraine’s defiant stance against relentless Russian attacks, while focusing more on the immediate needs and preparations for a new counter-offensive.

Political preparations for victories on the battlefield

It is indeed only a sequence of victories on the battlefield that can ensure success of the broad international efforts to bring the war to a just and stable end. The summits of June and July are preparing the political ground for this progress, and that is why Moscow is not only engaging in desperate diplomatic counter-maneuvering, but also sustaining the offensive in order to demonstrate that the strategic initiative is still with the Russian forces.

This war plan is, however, as flawed as was the initial blitzkrieg strategy aimed at capturing Kyiv and compelling Ukraine to capitulate. The heavy losses in fruitless attacks exhaust the not-so-big Russian battalions, and the combination of overheating and technological degradation of its economy undermine the capacity to sustain the war of attrition. Discussions on the parameters of a peace agreement may appear premature and unrealistic, but they are in fact as essential and timely as were the plans for rebuilding the world order made months before the memorable D-Day.

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