Switzerland summit should give peace a chance, but only on Ukraine’s terms
14 Jun 2024|

This weekend’s Summit on Peace in Ukraine is a misnomer. It’s not about an immediate end to the war but about finding ways to strengthen Ukraine’s hand so that it heads to the negotiating table on its own terms and timing, and that we have a reasonable chance of a peace that is both acceptable and durable.

Hosted by Switzerland, it will bring together leaders from about 100 countries ranging from Germany and France to Japan and Southeast Asian nations.

Russia has not been invited and has said it wouldn’t attend anyway. That’s good, because the goal cannot be to seek agreement on a ceasefire just to stop the fighting by any means. As with Crimea in 2014, a confected outcome would enable Russia simply to ease off until it feels confident to resume its invasion.

Instead, the conference should rally behind the Ronald Reagan doctrine of peace through strength. As Reagan told the 1980 Republican party convention—in remarks that some of today’s Republicans might usefully heed: ‘War comes not when the forces of freedom are strong but when they are weak. It is then that tyrants are tempted.’

This will likely require a willingness to escalate the conflict in the short term to ensure de-escalation can happen on Ukraine’s terms and to all of our long term benefit.

The conference attendees cannot allow—perfectly legitimate—humanitarian concerns, short term economic challenges or disinformation peddled by regimes propping up the Russian war machine to distract from the harsh reality—Ukraine has chosen as a nation to fight bravely at great human cost. Given they are fighting for basic values that keep the rest of us safer—as Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said as he increasingly desperately seeks continued international support—we owe the nation a post-war reconstruction and political plan that enables them to live with some confidence as Russia’s neighbour. This means not only helping Ukraine with the capabilities to fight against Russia but to help give them something to fight for.

No one would deny that this is a tough road for Ukraine and, in different ways, for its supporters internationally. But the price of allowing Russia to win or to enjoy impunity for the most flagrant violation of international rules in decades is incalculable for global security and stability.

That is the case for countries as geographically distant as Australia. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is not attending, and nor is any other minister on the National Security Committee of Cabinet.

This is disappointing for a democracy such as Australia, which enjoys security and prosperity because of support from other democracies in times of war—both hot and cold. True, China’s Premier Li Qiang is visiting in the coming days, but the Peace Summit is too important a gathering for not one of our key ministers to attend—and it would be deeply worrying if any senior government ministers and officials undervalue Europe’s importance to Australia and view the war as being fought a long way from our shores.

That said, it is positive that the minister attending, National Disability and Insurance Scheme Minister Bill Shorten will be viewed internationally as a former leader of the opposition—a very senior figure in the mould of Kim Beazley—with orthodox views on security.

As a former party and union leader, Shorten will take with him the experience that any type of negotiation—whether employment, trade, political or peace—is a contest in which the respective strength of each party is vital to the outcome and its lasting nature.

A favourable outcome to the war is not just a regional dilemma for Europe but is important for Australia and the Indo-Pacific, and any Russian ‘win’ would translate into insecurity for us.

There are no perfect analogies between Europe and the Indo-Pacific. The European theatre is predominantly land, while the Indo-Pacific is maritime, which means lessons at the operational level must be carefully interpreted. However, the strategic and political parallels are clear, from the global trust in liberal democracies and the US alliance system to confidence in effective constraint of aggressive authoritarian regimes and longstanding nuclear deterrence. A future in which Russia cannot be beaten back and deterrence effectively re-established in Europe automatically means deterrence is immeasurably weaker everywhere else, including in our region.

As Japan’s Prime Minister Kishida consistently states, ‘today’s Ukraine could be tomorrow’s East Asia’.

Indeed, the likely reason China is skipping the summit is that Beijing correctly judges it will not further Russia’s, and therefore its own, war aims. A Russian victory would recalibrate expectations about authoritarian aggression being held to account, and this would clearly benefit Beijing.

China is supporting Russia economically and materially, propping up its industrial capacity and supplying dual use goods that enable Russia to restock weapons and parts of weapons. Throughout history, wars have most often been won by out-producing the enemy.

This should be called out through a joint statement at the conference. A declaration that condemns countries such as North Korea and Iran for supporting Russia but stays silent on China would represent an appeasement that would only embolden Beijing to dig its heels in to help a Russian victory.

Prominent opponents of support for Ukraine tend to be isolationists or to be narrowly China-focused. The latter claim that the US and allied effort must not be distracted by Europe and should be aimed only at countering China as the pacing and long-term threat. They’re right that Beijing is the more enduring challenge, but they are wrong to think that tolerating Russia’s onslaught against its neighbour would better place us to tackle China’s own malign activity.

To deter all of Russia, China, Iran and North Korea, none can be ignored or tolerated. Freedom and sovereignty are not protected by picking and choosing which international rules are enforced and which regimes are appeased.

Australia and our region depend on the rules-based order even though some loud voices criticise the concept as increasingly quixotic. A world without rules such as the observance of other states’ territorial integrity and freedom of navigation at sea is worse than anarchy—it would mean aggressive authoritarian states such as Russia and China are free to achieve their strategic goals at the expense of others’ freedom and sovereignty while the rest of us live in hope that our silence and passivity means we are not next.

This means Australia should be firmly in the camp of helping Ukraine to determine any peace agreement to end the war. It cannot be resolved by other countries—or individual leaders—negotiating with Putin without Ukraine.

Given the relatively small cost of supporting Ukraine, Beijing would only interpret our giving up Ukraine as a sign of general western weakness, indifference, short-sightedness and self-absorption. It would be emboldened.

The argument that supporting Ukraine amounts to an opportunity cost to more important  priorities just doesn’t add up, considering the cost of Ukraine support is actually very mild. Indeed some might argue it is the bargain of a lifetime—as the Ukrainians are doing the fighting.

The objective for this conference must be peace through strength—both Ukraine’s and our own.