For centuries, the Swiss assessment was that their neutrality enhanced their country’s security. Now, they are unsure about that principle in light of the Ukraine conflict.

Military neutrality is central to Switzerland’s national identity. The term “playing Switzerland” is universally used to mean staying out of a dispute. No other people have upheld this tradition as long as the Swiss, who have even included this tenet in their Constitution. Yet, over the past six months, the Swiss have been asking themselves sensitive questions about their fabled neutrality within the context of the Ukrainian crisis.

Many scholars maintain that the origins of Switzerland’s neutrality date back to 1515. That year, roughly 10,000 Swiss lost their lives fighting the French in the 16-hour Battle of Marignano, forcing the Old Swiss Confederacy to abandon its expansion into Italy. Perched between France, Prussia, and Austria, the Swiss concluded that their interests would be best served by staying neutral in European conflicts while avoiding the risks of being on the losing side in any war. Then the 1815 Congress of Vienna, the Treaty of Paris in 1815, and the Hague Convention of 1907 further institutionalised, recognised, and defined Switzerland’s neutral status.

On the one hand, Switzerland’s general refusal to take sides in international disputes has contributed to its ability to prosper and become a hub for global diplomacy. Aside from New York, the main city for the United Nations is Geneva, which has played the gracious host to many hostile actors who have diplomatically engaged the internationally recognised neutral ground. For example, Bern has for decades served as a bridge between several countries and Iran.

But Switzerland’s neutrality has also had its sinister sides with moral costs. 

While staying out of both World Wars, the country shut its borders to Jewish refugees before and during World War II. The country was also a haven for bank accounts and safe deposit boxes belonging to Nazis. Financial institutions in Switzerland had lucrative business ties with the German Reichsbank and various Nazis who made fortunes from plundering wealth from the Holocaust’s victims. As World War II was winding down, the Swiss kept purchasing gold from Nazi Germany. Then after 1945, fugitive ex-Nazis found haven in Switzerland.

Beyond Nazis, scores of brutal strongmen and war criminals from countries worldwide have parked their wealth in Swiss banks due to its historic refusal to impose sanctions on countries unless mandated by the UN Security Council, as was the case with Iraq during its 1990/91 occupation of Kuwait. Also, Switzerland never boycotted South Africa’s apartheid government—a source of shame for many Swiss. 

The Ukraine shock  

For the first four days after Russia’s offensive on Ukraine this year, Switzerland justified holding off on imposing sanctions, citing its neutral foreign policy. Yet, by the end of February, the Alpine country had joined the Western European bandwagon. 

Bern has implemented virtually all the EU’s post-February 24 sanctions on Russia. This has entailed Switzerland freezing hundreds of Russian oligarchs’ and government officials’ assets, denying Russian planes access to Swiss airspace, and banning individuals within Putin’s inner circle from visiting the country. In his March 1 State of the Union address, US President Joe Biden hailed Switzerland’s cooperation with the West’s financial warfare against Russia.

“The Swiss government…took a firm stance. Pressure and concern in the population as well as from Western partners, who are Switzerland’s main political and economic partners, would have become unbearable had Switzerland abstained,” Benno Zogg, a senior researcher at the Center for Security Studies at ETH Zurich, says in an interview with TRT World

“Abstaining sanctions would have been a much stronger statement than adopting them. Any Swiss credibility with Western partners and Ukraine would have been lost.” 

Mindful of the fact that Switzerland imposed no sanctions on Russia in response to its 2014 annexation of Crimea, Bern sanctioning Moscow this year has marked a major shift in Swiss foreign policy. President and Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis maintained that the “extraordinary situation” resulting from Russia’s attacks on Ukraine called for “extraordinary measures” in response. 

The Swiss ambassador to the US, Jacques Pitteloud, explained that “to see a sovereign state attacking another sovereign state without any reason and without any justification and thus violating the very basic tenets of the international order was, for Switzerland, a major shock, definitely.” Switzerland’s decision to join the EU bloc’s efforts to financially squeeze Russia received high levels of support from the Swiss public.

“The [Swiss] people continue to cherish neutrality,” Laurent Goetschel, a Professor of Political Science University of Basel, tells TRT World. “However, they also expect their country to condemn the war of aggression, and I assume a large majority supports the fact that Switzerland adopted the sanctions decided by the EU.” 

An important debate 

Currently, a debate in Switzerland is whether their country can still be considered neutral while imposing such sanctions on Russia.

“Neutrality is a dynamic concept that contains a set of legal obligations like, for instance, not joining any military alliances that the Swiss will not touch. Not least since neutrality has also become part of Swiss identity,” Ambassador Thomas Greminger, who previously served as Secretary General of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) from July 2017 to July 2020 and is currently the director of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP), tells TRT World.

“However, when it comes to a neutrality policy, a neutral country has a large latitude in terms of policy choices. Joining the sanctions does definitely not contradict the legal obligations of a neutral state. Moreover, Switzerland continues to offer its good offices to both conflicting parties and remains a neutral platform for inclusive discussions,” added Ambassador Greminger.

Yet certain elements in the country, especially on the right, have opposed such measures. The Swiss People’s Party has argued that such measures violate Bern’s commitment to neutrality. 

For its part, Vladimir Putin’s government doesn’t think Switzerland remains neutral. Last month, Moscow refused Bern’s offer to serve as a representative of Ukrainian interests in Russia because Switzerland “joined illegal Western sanctions against Russia,” as Foreign Ministry spokesperson Ivan Nechayev stated.   

Nonetheless, Swiss-Russian relations have not suffered greatly from Bern’s sanctions, which Goetschel said have merely “annoyed” the Kremlin. But such measures have not been detrimental to bilateral ties, underscored by the Russian ambassador to Switzerland congratulating the historically neutral country on Swiss National Day last month. 

If the Russian-Ukrainian war continues to rage on, the 64,000-dollar question is, will Swiss neutrality crack? With a society divided over questions about how to respond to Russian aggression in Ukraine and Western states not looking kindly upon European countries responding to it neutrally, it will be increasingly challenging for Bern to stand in favour of international law while maintaining its historic neutrality.

“I believe that Switzerland and its institutions are still best positioned to provide safe spaces for exchanges between non-like-minded actors. Switzerland is uniquely positioned to strongly advocate for the respect of international law as well as international principles and commitments and, at the same time, to maintain dialogue with all States, including the Russian Federation or China,” says Ambassador Greminger. 

“Through the crisis [in Ukraine], Switzerland came to realise that it really belongs to the so-called Western community of values,” explains Goetschel. “This does not mean that it has to ‘melt’ into its neighbouring countries, but that when certain fundamental issues are at stake, it should not pretend to be different when in fact it isn’t.”

For centuries, the Swiss assessment was that their neutrality enhanced their country’s security. Now, they are debating whether it still achieves this objective. Ultimately, the Russo-Ukraine war has even prompted this debate in Switzerland speaks volumes about the extent to which the Ukrainian crisis has fundamentally changed Europe’s security architecture and the ways in which Europeans understand it. 

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.

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Source: TRT World