While Ukraine’s counteroffensive against Russia’s invasion has global attention on the battlefield, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government is also busy advancing a diplomatic initiative: a peace summit to build momentum and cohesion among international partners on its 10-point peace plan. The United States should be a leader in backing this diplomatic effort — which is on the agenda this weekend in multilateral talks in Saudi Arabia. Broadening international buy-in for Ukraine’s peace plan serves U.S. interests. It can short-circuit less constructive peace initiatives and reinforce a cardinal international norm: An aggressor that launches an unprovoked war can't expect to set the terms for peace afterward.
Ukraine: Building a Peace Plan
Zelenskyy presented Ukraine’s 10 principles for peace last November at a conference of the Group of 20 nations, and his government has been building international support for them over months. A peace plan, once finalized with broad international support, could serve as a shared platform for eventual multilateral negotiations to help end the war. Although Ukrainian leaders are in no rush to sit back down at the table with the Russians, they recognize that some form of negotiations will eventually be needed — whether to reach a comprehensive political settlement or just to hash out technicalities after a military victory. The United States should follow this cue and begin thinking through how to best support Ukraine diplomatically when it reaches this juncture.
All signals from officials in Kyiv indicate that Ukraine foresees eventual negotiations as a strictly multilateral affair. Having endured tense bilateral negotiations with Russians through the early stages of the war in March and April of 2022, Ukrainian leaders are adamantly unwilling to entertain resuming that format. The only negotiating table they wish to sit at now is one at which the United States and other partners are seated shoulder-to-shoulder alongside them.
One reason for the Ukrainians’ firmness on this is the agonizing failure of the eight-year peace effort through the “Normandy Format” peace talks. Ukraine accepted France and Germany as mediators in those talks soon after Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, seizing Crimea and part of southeastern Ukraine, in the Donbas. Those talks led to two agreements signed in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, in 2014 and 2015 that failed to obtain Russia’s withdrawal or an end to violence. Given that history, Ukrainians are understandably wary of multilateral talks that would not include the United States. They consider U.S. participation a condition for re-engaging in talks with Putin’s regime.
To build the widest possible support for Ukraine’s plan, Zelenskyy’s team has been undertaking steady diplomatic legwork. In June — on the weekend that Yevgeny Prighozhin, the leader of Russia’s Wagner Group, seized global attention with the drama of his brief mutiny against Putin — the head of President Zelenskyy’s office, Andriy Yermak, was preoccupied with other priorities. He was in Copenhagen to discuss Ukraine’s approach with counterparts from the Group of Seven countries, as well as from Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Brazil, India and South Africa.
This weekend, Ukraine will seek to further these efforts at talks in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia — a session that, critically, is expected to include a senior Chinese official, according to news reports. Arriving at a common roadmap for peace with China, which has floated its own peace plan, would add substantial momentum to Ukraine’s approach on peace talks. Ukraine has made clear that, while it will seek to accommodate the views of its partners as it refines the provisions, it will insist that Ukraine’s formula remain the basis for any multilateral peace plan.
A Next Goal: A ‘Peace Summit’
These consultations are laying the groundwork for an eventual peace summit among heads of state that Ukraine now aims to hold in the margins of next month’s U.N. General Assembly meetings. To achieve that, Ukraine will need in its working-level consultations to build unity around a common platform. This will mean ensuring that key governments intrigued by other plans, such as those circulated by China or by a group of seven African states, are persuaded to support Ukraine’s text. Second, convening a Ukraine-led peace summit alongside the U.N. meetings will likely require support from some or all of its usual partner countries in the U.N. Security Council — Britain, France and the United States — to persuade U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres to allow the summit at that time. The difficulty for Guterres is that such a summit would pointedly exclude Russia and thereby inevitably exacerbate tensions in the already deeply dysfunctional atmosphere within the Security Council.
It's not easy work, but Ukraine is clearly ready to apply the elbow grease to get it done. A peace summit could help complete and ratify a realistic approach to achieving peace in Ukraine. The United States can help advance this effort — not only with its participation in the upcoming diplomatic meetings, but also by reaching out to other actors that Ukraine wishes to bring into the effort — particularly countries from the Global South.