(Bloomberg) -- Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva stopped off in Switzerland on Thursday. He won’t be returning for a summit on Ukraine 48 hours later.

Brazil’s government said that the president was attending an International Labor Organization meeting in Geneva before traveling on the same day to the Group of Seven in Italy. Officials were at pains to stress that the timing of his visit was purely coincidental and was not meant as an affront to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. 

The episode still points to an uncomfortable reality for the US and its allies: After more than two years of defending against invading Russian forces, Ukraine is struggling to win support from nations of the Global South.

It’s an omission that will be felt during the June 15-16 conference in Lucerne that aims to make progress toward ending the war. G-7 leaders including Olaf Scholz of Germany and France’s Emmanuel Macron will attend, but no one from Brazil — current holder of the G-20 presidency — is actively participating. Brasilia is only sending an observer, according to an attendance list distributed by the Swiss government on Friday.  

In the absence of a Russian delegation, China confirmed it’s not sending anybody. 

That reality risks sapping momentum from Ukraine’s effort to stop the fighting. While 92 countries will attend, the meeting’s narrow set of goals including nuclear safety and food security still didn’t manage to convince some key Global South leaders to show up.

“Many countries feel that in a peace summit all elements must be present, especially Russia,” Indonesian President-elect Prabowo Subianto said last week after discussing his country’s cease-fire proposals with Zelenskiy. 

It’s a crowded arena. China and Brazil, both members of the BRICS group with Russia, have made their own proposals to bring about an end to the war. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has said that some 26 countries signed up to — or were seeking to join — the “common understandings” that underpinned the plan.

It calls for an international conference recognized by both Russia and Ukraine, an alternative vision to Kyiv’s western-backed proposals. That may have prompted Zelenskiy to use an appearance at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore earlier this month to appeal to Asian leaders to join the summit while accusing Beijing of working with Moscow to undermine Ukraine’s efforts.

‘Very unwise’

“I think it’s very unwise of him to do that because he must know that China has a lot of friends in Asia,” Kishore Mahbubani, a former top bureaucrat in Singapore’s Foreign Ministry and president of the UN Security Council, said in an interview.

A diplomat from a Southeast Asian nation who asked not to be named discussing sensitive matters pointed out that the Swiss event will be followed by a NATO summit in July, where leaders will discuss ramping up arms supplies to Ukraine. How is it possible to talk peace with the other side absent, added the diplomat, noting that even Israel and Hamas are talking.

Ukraine seeks to first get broad international support for its plan so that global leaders then help press Russia to end the war. Previous efforts to talk to Russia shortly after it annexed Crimea and started the military conflict in Ukraine’s east failed, resulting in simmering fighting that led to the full-scale war.

Western officials acknowledged last year that they were losing the tussle for global influence around the war, and embarked on efforts to sway opinion in their favor.

But it’s an uphill struggle with China’s global reach as the world’s No. 2 economy, and countries from India to Egypt continuing to look to Russia for trade, energy, defense or historic and cultural reasons. Russian President Vladimir Putin is due to travel to North Korea and Vietnam this month.

The dynamic is bolstered by Beijing’s close ties with Moscow as part of what Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping term a “no limits” friendship. Bilateral trade reached a record $240 billion in 2023; Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov thanked Wang this week for Beijing’s decision not to attend the Swiss summit.

G-7 nations have pointed a finger at Beijing for aiding Moscow’s war effort by providing technologies and parts used in weapons or needed to make them, and agreed to provide Ukraine with some $50 billion in new aid backed by the profits generated by frozen Russian central bank assets. China has denied accusations that it’s supplying weapons to Russia. 

Hypocrisy charge

For its part, China’s diplomatic network has privately communicated with governments in Asia to equate the wars in Ukraine and Gaza and make the case that the US and its allies have been hypocritical in their responses, according to a person familiar with the messaging.

The charge of hypocrisy was also heard when the US and its allies helped Israel intercept missiles and drones launched in retaliation by Iran in April. Zelenskiy publicly contrasted the western answer to that attack to its efforts to defend Ukraine. “Terror must be defeated completely and everywhere, not more in some places and less in others,” Zelenskiy said on X. 

Another BRICS member, South Africa, has led a case against Israel’s war with Hamas at the International Court of Justice while resisting US pressure to condemn Russia’s invasion. President Cyril Ramaphosa won’t attend the gathering; South Africa will send a lower-level envoy.

For Beijing, the summit and a meeting in Russia this week of BRICS foreign ministers is part of an unnecessary “battle for narratives,” said Cui Hongjian, a professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University and a former Chinese diplomat. 

China is likely “waiting for a window of opportunity for a more practical occasion” than the Swiss event, he said. That might involve direct negotiations between Russia and Ukraine and a multilateral format guided by “the spirit of compromise, not a bloc-confrontational one.”

Grain shipping

Turkey has sought the role of mediator in a different way, hosting early talks aimed at ending the fighting and brokering an agreement to keep exports of Ukrainian grain shipping through the Black Sea. Still, Ankara remains frustrated by the European Union, which it sees as slow-walking Turkish hopes for joining the bloc while fast-tracking Ukraine’s newcomer bid. 

That has fueled an openness to deepen cooperation with the BRICS, according to two senior Turkish officials who spoke on condition of anonymity. Turkey will send Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan. 

Zelenskiy has worked hard to shore up the backing of key countries. On Wednesday, he touched down in Jeddah for a last-minute effort to court Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s support. That effort paid off: Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud will represent the crown prince. 

Zelenskiy also met with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who won’t attend the summit, on the sidelines of the G-7 meeting. India has traditionally enjoyed close relations with Russia, and Modi has a good rapport with Putin. Modi said his country supports a peaceful resolution to the conflict. 

His government will send Pavan Kapoor, a state secretary who served as ambassador to Russia until February this year. 

The problem is one of fundamental lack of trust between the US and China, and their respective orbits, according to Abhisit Vejjajiva, former prime minister of Thailand.

“Because of this, it’s so difficult to see how either side can claim legitimacy to initiate some kind of peace summit,” he said in an interview. “The other side is simply not going to accept it.”   

--With assistance from Simone Iglesias, Selcan Hacaoglu, Colum Murphy, Chandra Asmara, Alberto Nardelli, Jing Li, Philip J. Heijmans, Daryna Krasnolutska and Alessandro Speciale.

(Updates with attendance status of BRICS nations, Saudi Arabaia from fourth paragraph.)

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