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Ukraine pushes peace plan in Davos, but faces an uphill battle to rally support

‘Western countries are no longer able to present the Ukrainian cause as being a justified moral cause.’

This is a medium shot showing President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky sitting at a desk alongside many officials in Lithuania on Wednesday 10 of January 2024 during a visit to Vilnius, Lithuania. BNS/Scanpix via Reuters Connect
Lithuania’s President Gitanas Nauseda meets President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine in Vilnius on 10 January, 2024.

National security advisers are due to gather in the Swiss ski resort town of Davos on 14 January for another round of closed-door talks on Ukraine’s peace plan, as the country tries to rally the Global South to its flank.

But as Ukrainian forces struggle to push Russia out of their territory and a fragmented West falters, the prospects of peace are as elusive as ever. Adding to that, the war in Gaza is not only dominating international attention but the West, accused of double standards, is standing on shaky moral high ground.

The meeting, which excludes Russia, will take place on the eve of the World Economic Forum’s big annual gathering in Davos, where Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is also expected in the following days to promote his 10-point peace formula.

Launched in late 2022, the plan includes ensuring Ukraine can export its grains to the world’s poorest countries, restoring safety at the Zaporizhzhia and other nuclear plants, as well as returning war prisoners and Ukrainian children deported to Russia.

Among the more ambitious goals are the withdrawal of all Russian troops and cessation of hostilities, restoring Ukraine’s territorial integrity (including Crimea), and creating a special tribunal to prosecute Russia’s war crimes.

The meeting in Davos will be the fourth round of talks, following discussions in Copenhagen, Jeddah, and Malta last year.

“Our Ukrainian counterparts hope that this technical meeting will be a consistent step towards the next stage, which is peace talks,” said Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Nicolas Bideau.

Ukraine wants to organise a peace summit early this year, which could pave the way to future talks with Moscow. But at which stage Russia would be invited to join is unclear. Regardless, convincing Russia to come to the negotiating table won’t be easy as it has repeatedly rejected Zelensky’s peace plan.

Responding to Geneva Solutions, Vladimir Khokhlov, press secretary at the Russian embassy in Switzerland, said the formula is “a set of ultimatums to Russia” that “can’t serve as a basis of a negotiation” and added that any talks that excluded Moscow were “meaningless”.

‘A war of attrition’

Twenty-three months into Russia’s full-scale invasion, the reality on the battlefield has also tempered expectations from experts.

“What we have right now is a kind of stalemate typical of a war of attrition,” said Jean-Marc Rickli, head of global and emerging risks at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP). Ukraine failed last year to produce any major breakthrough and severely lacks the military capacity and manpower to gain the upper hand.

Last March, the EU promised one million rounds of 155-millimetre artillery shells to Ukraine by March 2025, but it is struggling to deliver.

“At the time, the EU member states produced about 230,000 per year, and by November, they had increased production by 20 or 30%,” Rickli said. “They were not even there yet, and Ukraine consumes up to 7,000 rounds per day. You see how intense in terms of ammunition this war is.”

Rickli said that unless the West switches to a war economy mode, it won’t be able to keep up with the needed production rate.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that Russia is winning. It has also suffered significant losses in terms of soldiers and materials, but it has a higher production capacity than Ukraine and can now also rely on Iranian and North Korean logistical support, he said.

“In a war of attrition, at the end of the day, it’s numbers that matter. It's the one that can sustain effort the longest that will prevail,” said Rickli.

A polarised West

The West’s unwavering support for Ukraine has also started to decline as war fatigue sets in, Rickli said: “People in the West are sick of hearing about bad news such as Ukraine and Gaza. These also contribute to inflation and, therefore, have a direct impact on citizens in the West.”

“If Trump comes to power, it is very likely that Ukraine will lose US support. If that happens, Ukraine will be in a very difficult position.”

Stalled aid packages to Ukraine in the EU and the US Congress, which have become bargaining chips in domestic politics, are a testament to that, according to Vassily Klimentov, lecturer and research associate at the Centre on Conflict, Development and Peacebuilding at the Geneva Graduate Institute.

The looming US presidential election at the end of the year is another decisive factor. “It will determine a lot of what the American support for Ukraine will be in the years to come,” said Klimentov.

For Rickli, “If Trump comes to power, it is very likely that Ukraine will lose US support. If that happens, Ukraine will be in a very difficult position.”

Meanwhile, the UN has said humanitarian needs keep growing in Ukraine, where one quarter of the population is displaced, and civilians are still being killed by Russian attacks. Some six million Ukrainian refugees are scattered across Europe, many of whom still face difficulties in accessing education, healthcare, and other basic needs.

Wooing the south

One of the main goals of the Davos talks is to obtain support from countries still on the fence, particularly from the Global South. Many have been slow to condemn Russia’s invasion and violation of the UN Charter at the UN, and have refused to take further steps, such as imposing sanctions.

“There has been a realisation in the West that they need to actually talk to countries in the Global South about their concerns because the fallout of the war for their food security for their national development goals, etc, is significant and comes on the heels of the COVID pandemic,” said Zachary Paikin, senior researcher at the GCSP’s International Security Dialogue department.

The fact that Russia isn’t in the room and Ukraine’s weakened military position make this goal difficult to reach. The war between Israel and Hamas has pushed this even farther from grasp as Western support for Israel’s retaliation to Hamas’ 7 October attacks is labelled as hypocrisy.

“Western countries are no longer able to present the Ukrainian cause as being a justified moral cause that everyone must support,” said Paikin. “If there was ever a chance that Ukraine would be able to push its 10-point peace plan successfully in the rest of the world – and I think it was always a relatively slim chance – over the past few months, that [chance] just completely withered away.”

A secret meeting in Saudi Arabia in December that gathered Ukraine’s allies and a group of Global South countries to discuss the peace formula was snubbed by China, Brazil, and the United Arab Emirates despite having participated in previous meetings, according to reports by Bloomberg.

Organisers in Davos are expecting at least 80 delegations out of the 120 countries that were invited.

Searching for common ground

This doesn’t mean that the issues on the agenda are not worth discussing, the experts agree. One with the potential for some tangible agreement is nuclear safety. Shelling of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant in Ukraine, and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s threats to resort to nukes if the West got involved, had stoked fears of an irreversible escalation.

“It is something which the countries supporting Ukraine, but also some of the countries supporting Russia, are more sensitive about. There's a reasonable consensus, including from China and India, that this should not be allowed to happen,” said Klimentov.

The chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Rafael Grossi, tried last year to hash out a plan to reduce the risk of a nuclear disaster at the Zaporizhzhia plant.

He notes that this issue has receded to the background as Putin seeks to downplay the conflict at the international level but also for internal audiences. Russia is also headed for elections in which Putin may have to face a certain degree of discontent about the war’s impacts on the economy and business relations with the West.

“Zelensky’s peace plan right now is a kind of illusion because, in order to impose it, Ukraine has to be in a position of force, which is not the case right now.”

“It will be a formality for Vladimir Putin to get re-elected. But it's still not a good time for an escalation,” he said.

For Rickli, while a withdrawal of Russian troops may be currently out of the question, Moscow could agree to a cessation of hostilities as it has done in the past in 2014. “But that would mean freezing the conflict as it is. Then one can fear that it’ll take a few years for Russia to regain its strength and launch another offensive in the future,” he warned.

“Zelensky’s peace plan right now is a kind of illusion because, in order to impose it, Ukraine has to be in a position of force, which is not the case right now.”

A prisoner swap conducted last week – the largest to date since February 2022, according to Kyiv – was another signal that the warring nations are still able to find common ground, as was last year’s Black Sea grain deal, which Russia has said it has no interest in reviving.

While this is encouraging, for Paikin, any serious peace efforts will have to include Russia.

This condition is also self-evident for Ukraine’s allies: “Switzerland is always ready to host peace talks, but the rule is clear: both sides have to ask us,” said Bideau.

A version of this article was first published by Geneva Solutions. It was adapted by The New Humanitarian and re-published here with permission.

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