Almost exactly 200 days into Russia's all-out war, the world's top diplomats, politicians, economists, and political scientists gathered in Kyiv for a discreet and heavily guarded event.
In the basement conference room of a hotel in central Kyiv, Ukrainian leadership and top officials from the U.S., U.K., Latvia, Poland, and Germany spent two days discussing what lies ahead for Ukraine, Russia, and the entire European continent amid Russia’s ongoing aggression against Ukraine.
At the 17th annual Yalta European Strategy (YES) conference on Sept. 9-10, Ukrainian leadership made it clear that Ukraine won't agree to any territorial concessions, and achieving peace can only be possible through Kyiv's victory on the battlefield.
Ukraine’s swift counteroffensive in Kharkiv Oblast, taking place at the same time as the conference, made the message all the more powerful.
Initially held in Yalta in Crimea, occupied by Russia since 2014, the YES conference, organized by oligarch Victor Pinchuk, has been Ukraine's most prestigious political gathering since 2004.
The event, prepared in secrecy due to potential Russian attacks on the capital, featured a number of high-profile speakers from former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, to historian Timothy Snyder, former Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski, and former Supreme Allied Commander in Europe Wesley Clark.
United States National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland joined the conference online.
"The talks are now only about the complete renewal of the territorial integrity within the lines of the internationally recognized borders of (Ukraine) in 1991," Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said.
In the early stages of the all-out war, Reznikov, as part of the Ukrainian delegation, traveled three times to Belarus and once to Turkey to negotiate with Russia. Since then, Ukraine’s message to Russia has changed.
"(Back then) we told Russians that in order to continue negotiations, you must withdraw to the pre-Feb. 24 demarcation line. Then it was (still) possible," Reznikov said.
"Now they have passed the point of no return," he added, ostensibly alluding to the brutal nature of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine that has killed thousands of civilians and targeted civilian infrastructure all over the country.
The crowd cheered.
Winning the war
President Volodymyr Zelensky was the first to take the stage on Sept. 9.
Accompanied by Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and Latvian President Egils Levits, Zelensky said that there are "three fundamental conditions for achieving peace – weapons, ammunition, finances," adding that "support for Ukraine in the war must be maintained."
Morawiecki echoed Zelensky’s statement, saying it is in Europe's interest to support Ukraine and help Kyiv win the war.
"Ukraine is fighting for yours and our freedom," Morawiecki said. "This must be understood by our Italian friends and German partners, and French, and the others. They are of a slightly different opinion than we are."
Morawiecki said there shouldn't be any delays with weapons shipments to Ukraine. "The victory of (Vladimir Putin) will mean another war soon," he said.
At a later panel, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said the most significant race now is logistics, pointing out that Ukraine is successfully conducting a counteroffensive in Kharkiv Oblast because of timely shipments of Western arms.
"Ukraine will stop only if supplies from partners are delayed or put on hold," said Kuleba. "The key word here is the schedule of the delivery (of weapons)."
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, taking the stage with Kuleba, said that Europe must be united in its support for Ukraine.
"We can win this war," said Baerbock. The minister later promised Ukraine more air defense systems and demining equipment.
A similar notion was shared by United States National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan who joined the conference via Zoom.
"The main interest of the U.S. in this war is to help restore the territorial integrity of Ukraine, either through negotiations or on the battlefield," said Sullivan, adding that Ukraine has the right to determine its tasks regarding territories occupied by Russia, including those occupied in 2014.
Visiting officials agreed that while Europe is showing unity now, Russia will continue to attempt to sow discontent across the continent in order to erode support for Ukraine.
One of the ways Russia will do so, according to those present, is by using gas as a weapon, something it has already done with the abrupt shutdown of the Nord Stream 1 pipeline in early September.
All acknowledged that Europe can’t allow this to happen.
"We have been on the wrong track, definitely, otherwise we wouldn't pay, ourselves, such a high price with regard to (gas) dependency," said Baerbock. "There was never cheap gas, the price for this 'cheap gas' was the situation in Ukraine."
Baerbock added that in the long run, Germany must go green.
In the short run, Germany plans to substitute Russian gas, which accounted for nearly 50% of the country’s gas supplies in 2021, or over 56 billion cubic meters, by using coal and investing in projects in the Maghreb.
Baerbock said that Germany was pushing to connect Northwestern Africa to the European energy network via building a grid through Spain and France, adding that earlier "France wasn't ready for that."
According to Latvian President Egils Levits, who took part in the discussion together with Baerbock, the energy issue is part of Europe's security and should be dealt with accordingly.
"The majority of European society understands this," said Levits.
Levits said that while the European Commission should help those suffering the most from high energy prices, Europeans should be ready to take a hit for democracy in order to preserve democracy in Ukraine and in Europe as a whole.
"I think it’s possible to explain this to the people," he said.