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Editor’s Note: Switzerland, famously, is a neutral country, but its response to the latest war in Ukraine is far from even-handed. Bern chose to join other European states and impose some economic penalties on Russia for its invasion. Marcel Berni of the Swiss Military Academy notes that despite this tilt, Switzerland still clings to the veneer of neutrality, which remains politically popular, even as the debate grows inside the country over whether Switzerland should shed its neutral status.
The bloody war for Ukraine's future poses uncomfortable questions in many European capitals. In Switzerland, a traditionally neutral and peaceful nation, the war has renewed an old discussion about neutrality, weapons exports, and Swiss national security. In adopting sanctions targeting Russia, Switzerland has acted with more partisanship than it has in decades, but it has also been cautious in its approach and the principle of neutrality remains popular among the Swiss public. As Swiss diplomats prepare to chair the UN Security Council in May 2023, the Helvetic neutrality is at the crossroads.
Russian Aggression and Ambivalent Swiss Neutrality
Like other European countries, Switzerland was not prepared for the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine, but it quickly joined the rest of Europe in applying various forms of economic pressure. Switzerland's executive body first reacted cautiously to the EU's economic sanctions. It was only due to domestic as well as foreign political pressure that the Swiss Federal Council decided on February 28, 2022, to fully adopt the EU's sanctions against Russia. Reluctantly, it adopted entry bans, a blocking of assets, a take-off and landing ban for military aircraft, as well as financial measures and a trade ban on certain goods.
As the war in Ukraine continued, two domestic political debates took place in Switzerland. The first concerned neutrality and its applicability to wars in the 21st century, particularly to wars that violate international law. A second debate, closely connected to the first, centered on the rigid Federal Act on War Materiel, originally enacted in 1996 but tightened significantly on Oct. 1, 2021, before the Russian invasion. Under the law, buyers of Swiss arms are legally banned from reexporting them to war zones. Whereas the economic sanctions carry more weight, the blocking of exports of Swiss-made weapons has become a more contentious topic.
The long-standing concept of armed neutrality is instilled in every Swiss citizen almost from birth. Politically, it is largely uncontroversial and is endorsed by a consistently high proportion of the population. The Swiss militia army and a professional air force guarantee that the country's neutrality and independence can be enforced and also provide a certain deterrent effect. The seemingly positive experiences in the past have strengthened many Swiss in the belief that neutrality has helped their small country in the center of Europe over the past centuries to prosperity, stability, and peace. Switzerland survived the two world wars largely intact. Especially since World War II, neutrality has become a powerful myth, shared by a major part of the population, regardless of political ideology. Swiss voters of virtually all political views believe in a kind of neutrality dividend. Hence, it was surprising by historical standards how quickly the federal council adopted economic sanctions against Russia. Their extent as well as the unquestioning acceptance of the Western sanctions by Switzerland were in fact unprecedented.
Switzerland, with its good services in the field of international law, has repeatedly contributed diplomatically to mediate conflicts and organize humanitarian aid. Swiss diplomats have supported conflict resolution by helping to draft the two Minsk agreements in response to Russia's first aggression against Ukraine in 2014, the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, and the outbreak of civil war in the Donbas. The principle of foreign policy neutrality helped Swiss diplomats gain acceptance from both warring parties.
Both Ukraine and Russia question whether Switzerland is truly neutral. Moscow reacted with disappointment, denouncing Bern and explicitly questioning Switzerland's neutral stance when it signed on to the sanctions regime. The reaction was reversed in Washington, where Americans were pleased that Switzerland was willing to join the Western sanctions. U.S. President Joe Biden was so delighted to have Switzerland on his side that he used it to underline the Western community’s moral justification during his State of the Union address, stating that “even Switzerland” had implemented economic sanctions on Russia.
The sanctions adopted by Switzerland differed slightly from those of other European states. Russian diplomats, for example, were not expelled and Russian broadcasters were not blocked. In the absence of a binding decision by the UN Security Council, the Swiss Federal Council strictly applied the law of neutrality. Consequently, it banned overflights by military aircraft from both parties to the Ukraine war. Much more serious was the ban imposed by the Swiss Confederation on the export of Swiss-made weapons, weapon components, and ammunition to either of the warring countries. This tightening of the Swiss neutrality dogma has since led to repeated headshaking abroad and a complete embargo on Swiss arms sales to Ukraine and Russia.
The controversy culminated with the question of whether a small number of Swiss-made 35mm rounds could be delivered from Germany to Ukraine. Twice Switzerland forbade Germany to deliver the ammunition for use in German Gerard anti-aircraft tanks. Switzerland was equally restrictive when Denmark wanted to pass on Swiss-made Piranha armored fighting vehicles to Ukraine.
Diplomatic and Humanitarian Initiatives
Sanctions on Russia and often-misunderstood restrictions on military goods have been accompanied by Swiss peace demands and diplomatic initiatives. Various demonstrations in major Swiss cities called for an immediate end to the war and the withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine. These demands culminated in a rally in Bern on March 22, 2022, where Swiss President Ignazio Cassis expressed solidarity with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. This show of unity demonstrated that Switzerland had indeed picked a side, at least symbolically. In fact, since the first days of the war, a pro-Ukraine feeling has persisted in Switzerland.
Like in other European countries, the consequences of the war and economic sanctions have manifested in higher energy prices and worsening inflation. Nevertheless, Switzerland quickly took in Ukrainian war refugees and provided financial and moral support to Kyiv. In early July, Switzerland and Ukraine even organized a conference in Lugano to discuss the reconstruction of the country. The Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining additionally trained Ukrainian sappers to support the demining of liberated areas.
Politicians and military leaders in Ukraine, as well as in Russia, seem aware that the end of the war will be negotiated at some point. But even if the war continues indefinitely, Switzerland could still be a negotiating venue accepted by both sides in the medium term. However, Russia would first need to accept Switzerland as a neutral mediator again. After all, Switzerland's diplomatic efforts to date, such as an offer to assume a diplomatic protection mandate for Ukraine in Moscow, have been appreciated by Kyiv but were rejected by Moscow. The good services traditionally offered by Switzerland have so far not been accepted. Until now, negotiations on possible cease-fires have taken place not in Switzerland, but in Belarus and Turkey.
Breaking the Neutrality Taboo?
In Switzerland, the war in Ukraine has thus relaunched debates on the costs and benefits of neutrality. Indeed, in Switzerland, there was no immediate surge of enthusiasm for joining NATO. The mountain republic is not like Finland or Sweden, geographically exposed to the Russian threat; it is protected by nonneutral neighbors like France, Germany, and Italy. Officially, Switzerland continues to interpret its neutrality strictly and is guided by the Hague Convention of 1907,an agreement from a time of imperialism, colonialism, nationalism, and social Darwinism. When the Hague Convention was signed and entered into law three years later, the world was very different from today: At that time, war was not yet prohibited under international law, as it is today. Additionally, in 1907, UN Article 51, which explicitly forbids wars of aggression, did not yet exist. Nevertheless, the Swiss Federal Council still insists on the enshrined, rigid neutrality, as in 1907. The Swiss government gives greater weight to the neutrality provisions of the Hague Regulations of 1907 than to the UN Charter. One could even claim that Switzerland is currently sabotaging Article 51 of the UN Charter by blocking the delivery of military aid to Ukraine in its war of self-defense.
Perhaps the ongoing domestic political debate and the upcoming national election campaign are the reasons why the national conservative Swiss People's Party has announced the launch of a popular initiative to write integral neutrality into the Swiss constitution and thus further strictly dictate the interpretation of neutrality policy to the Federal Council. It would constitute a true turning point in Swiss politics—a “Zeitenwende,” but backward.
The war in Ukraine has brought the countries of Europe closer together and strengthened the European Union and NATO and, at the same time, weakened the United Nations by demonstrating its inability to stop the military aggression of a permanent member of the Security Council against its neighbor. History illustrates the fact that neutrality has helped Switzerland at times when other European countries were at war. During the Cold War, it was already difficult to maintain this notion, but since then Switzerland has found it even more difficult to plausibly justify the taboo it has established. Despite the war in Ukraine, no country threatens Switzerland's territorial integrity in the current geopolitical environment. Clinging to neutrality is no longer necessary in the absence of continental threats; doing so leaves Switzerland constantly having to explain itself with thinner and thinner justifications. It’s time for Switzerland to abandon its strict neutrality, which is no longer understood abroad. During a clear breach of international law by an aggressor, the current ambivalent use of neutrality is the wrong instrument.
But this will not happen in the foreseeable future. The current national interpretation of strict neutrality is simply too popular, and neutrality has become a petrified element of Swiss identity. For most Swiss, neutrality has historically had more benefits than costs, becoming a sacred cow. It will take more than a hot war in Eastern Europe to get the Swiss to abandon such a cherished and glorified practice.