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‘Colossal’: World leaders meet in Switzerland for Ukraine recovery conference

Leaders from dozens of countries, international organisations and the private sector gathered in Switzerland Monday to hash out a "Marshall Plan" to rebuild war-ravaged Ukraine.

President Ignazio Cassis said Switzerland will join the EU in imposing sanctions on Russia. Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)
Swiss President Ignazio Cassis. Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who will take part virtually, warned Sunday that the work ahead in the areas that have been liberated alone was “really colossal”.

“And we will have to free over 2,000 villages and towns in the east and south of Ukraine,” he said.

The two-day conference, held under tight security in the picturesque southern Swiss city of Lugano, had been planned well before Russia launched its full-scale invasion on February 24.

It had originally been slated to discuss reforms in Ukraine, but once the Russian bombs began to fall it was repurposed to focus on reconstruction.

As billions of dollars in aid flows into Ukraine, however, lingering concerns about widespread corruption in the country mean far-reaching reforms remain in focus and will be a condition for any recovery plan decided here. 

‘Roadmap’

Lugano is not a pledging conference, but will instead attempt to lay out the principles and priorities for a rebuilding process aimed to begin even as Russia’s war in Ukraine continues to rage.

Ukraine’s ambassador to Switzerland Artem Rybchenko said ahead of the conference that it would help create “the roadmap” to his country’s recovery.

Zelensky had initially been scheduled to come and co-host the event alongside his Swiss counterpart Ignazio Cassis, but now he is due to give his address Monday afternoon via video link.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal has however made a rare trip out of Ukraine since the war began to attend, and was met at the airport Sunday by Cassis and regional leaders.

Five other government ministers were also among the around 100 Ukrainians who made the long and perilous journey, although Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba reportedly had to cancel at the last moment due to illness.

In all, around 1,000 people were scheduled to participate in the conference, including European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, several government chiefs and numerous ministers. 

‘Marshall Plan’

Questions have been raised about the value in discussing reconstruction when there is no end in sight to the war.

But Robert Mardini, director-general of the International Committee of the Red Cross, told the RTS broadcaster that while the reconstruction itself could only happen fully after the bombs have stopped, it is vital to give “a positive perspective to civilians who have lost their homes, and who are struggling with anxiety and uncertainty for the future”.

Others stress the need to begin laying the groundwork well in advance, as was done with the wildly successful Marshall Plan, a US initiative that pumped vast sums in foreign aid into Western Europe to help the continent rebuild and recover after World War II.

The task is daunting.

Rebuilding Ukraine, which four months into the war has already seen devastating destruction, is expected to cost hundreds of billions of dollars.

The effort will require “colossal investments”, Zelensky acknowledged at the weekend.

Kyiv School of Economics (KSE) has estimated the damage done so far to buildings and infrastructure at nearly $104 billion.

It estimated that at least 45 million square metres of housing, 256 enterprises, 656 medical institutions, and 1,177 educational institutions had been damaged, destroyed or seized, while Ukraine’s economy had already suffered losses of up to $600 billion. 

Could last decades 

Simon Pidoux, the Swiss ambassador in charge of the conference, said that it was too early to try to estimate all the needs, insisting Lugano instead should provide “a compass” for the work ahead.

“I think the effort will last for years if not decades,” he said.

While not a donor conference, a number of participants are expected to make new pledges and propose frameworks for providing more funds.

The European Investment Bank will for instance propose the creation of a new Ukraine trust fund, which with investments from EU and non-EU states could eventually swell to 100 billion euros, according to sources familiar with the draft plans.

The proposal, which is due to be announced Monday afternoon, aims to create a platform able to generate investment towards reconstruction, and also towards Ukraine’s EU accession goals, they said.

British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss is meanwhile due to set out her country’s vision for the rebuilding, according to a statement. In her comments to the conference Monday, she is expected to highlight the importance of Ukraine’s full recovery from “Russia’s war of aggression”. That, she will say, will be “a symbol of the power of democracy over autocracy.”

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UKRAINE

LATEST: Moscow says Switzerland can’t represent Kyiv in Russia

Ukraine had asked Switzerland to represent it diplomatically in Russia, but the Kremlin claims the Swiss have 'lost their neutral status'.

LATEST: Moscow says Switzerland can't represent Kyiv in Russia

Russia said on Thursday that Switzerland has lost its neutral status and cannot represent Ukraine diplomatically in Russia, blaming Bern’s decision to impose sanctions on Moscow.

Switzerland had stated earlier that Ukraine asked Bern to represent it in Russia.

The Swiss foreign ministry said that Ukraine had requested that Switzerland “assume a protecting power mandate” for Kyiv in Russia, confirming a story in the Luzerner Zeitung newspaper.

“The corresponding negotiations have been completed,” a ministry spokeswoman told AFP in an email on Wednesday.

READ ALSO: Switzerland bans imports of Russian gold

But the spokeswoman had stressed that “in order for the protecting power mandate to come into force, Russia still has to give its consent” – which the Kremlin didn’t.

Switzerland has lost neutral status’

“Unfortunately, Switzerland has lost the status of a neutral state and cannot act either as a mediator or as a representative of interests,” Russian foreign ministry spokesman Ivan Nechayev told reporters.

He confirmed that Bern had asked Russia if it would agree to Switzerland representing the interests of Ukraine in Russia and vice versa.

Nechayev stressed that Switzerland had been supporting the Kyiv government and slapped sanctions on Russia.

READ ALSO: MAP: Which Swiss cities will be most impacted by a gas shortage this winter?

“It is completely incomprehensible how one can offer mediation, representation or other goodwill services with such behaviour,” he added.

Ever since Russian President Vladimir Putin sent troops to Ukraine on February 24, Switzerland — renowned for its neutrality — has said it stood ready to provide diplomatic assistance and to serve as a go-between.

Moscow has been angered by Bern’s decision to follow the neighbouring European Union in imposing sanctions on Russia.

Switzerland has a long tradition of acting as a protecting power, first playing the role during the Franco Prussian War in 1870-71.The wealthy Alpine country, which has held such mandates hundreds of times
since then, currently represents the diplomatic interests of a range of countries including Russian interests in Georgia and vice versa.

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