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Russia-Ukraine war: Why Switzerland is veering from its traditional neutrality policy

Switzerland has broken its 200-year long neutrality policy to sanction Moscow and its leaders. What has changed now?

Written by Navmi Krishna , Edited by Explained Desk | Kochi |
Updated: March 4, 2022 12:12:39 am
Swiss Federal President Ignazio Cassis speaks during a press conference in Bern, Switzerland, Monday, Feb. 28, 2022. (Peter Schneider/Keystone via AP)

As western leaders came together to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Switzerland broke its 200-year long neutrality policy to sanction Moscow and its leaders. It also announced it would join the European Union (EU) in closing the Swiss airspace to Russian aeroplanes, curtailing entry to the Swiss with Russian connections and imposing financial sanctions on Russian President Vladimir Putin and other leaders.

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“Switzerland is implementing the financial sanctions imposed by the European Union on Russian President Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov with immediate effect,” the Swiss federal government said in a statement on February 28.

“We are in an extraordinary situation where extraordinary measures could be decided,” Switzerland’s President and Foreign Minister Ignazio said while announcing the decision.

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The famed neutrality

The tiny Alpine nation the size of Haryana has had a neutrality policy in place since 1815. Its official website attests to this, noting that “permanent neutrality is a principle of Swiss foreign policy.” Though it serves as the headquarters of several diplomatic missions and as the venue for historic treaties like the Geneva Convention, Switzerland is not a part of the European Union or NATO. It is a mark of how seriously the Swiss take their neutral foreign policy that it joined the United Nations as recently as 2002, putting an end to years to debate after 54 per cent of its population voting in favour of the move.

Historically, the Swiss had been famed warriors with expansionist ambitions until the 1500s when they lost the Battle of Marignano to the French. The years that followed saw the Swiss shift its foreign policy to that of being an armed impartial state during wartime, a stance which was sorely tested in the decades that followed.

The World Wars

During the Second World War, Switzerland, which shares borders with Germany, France and Italy, found itself surrounded by Axis forces, with Hitler describing the land-locked territory as “a pimple on the face of Europe”.

Europe during the Second World War (Wikicommons)

The Swiss used a combination of military deterrence, strategic planning and economic neutrality to hold its own in 1940s Europe. An Independent Commission of Experts Switzerland – Second World War noted that the country was “completely encircled by the Axis powers between summer 1940 and autumn 1944” and survived by adopting a “fortress mentality”.

Leveraging their unique terrain comprising the mighty mountains and populous plateaus, the Swiss put together an intricate system of defences by packing explosives into structures at strategic locations on its border and major transportation routes, many of which were dismantled only recently. For instance, a bridge connecting Stein in Switzerland to Bad Säckingen in Germany, which was secretly fitted with explosives, was disarmed as recently as October 2014, according to a Financial Times report.

Besides this, the Swiss pursued a policy of armed neutrality, putting into place compulsory military service (which continues till date) to maintain military readiness in event of an invasion. Equally significant was its policy of economic cooperation with both the Allied and Axis forces, which made them a less attractive target for attack.

The latter has also earned the Swiss flak for colluding with the Nazis—the Independent Commission report quotes a London Times journalist memorandum to the British Foreign Office suggesting that Switzerland will not be occupied both due to Swiss industrial and banking prowess and because Switzerland was the place “where the bigshot Nazis have parked their loot.”

Employees load Swiss Armed Forces relief supplies for Swiss Humanitarian Aid onto a truck at the Army Logistics Center in Othmarsingen, Switzerland, March 2, 2022. (AP)

What changed now?

In an official statement, the Swiss government said that “Russia’s unprecedented military attack on a sovereign European country was the deciding factor in the Federal Council’s decision to change its previous stance on sanctions.”

However, this contradicts its stance on the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014. A Reuters report from the time noted that while Switzerland said it will not be “abused” by those looking to avoid sanctions by the West, it stopped short of adopting measures of its own. Up to now, the exception has been sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council, which it has to implement under international law, reported Reuters.

But Switzerland is not really breaking a precedent, pointed out political scientist Dr Laurent Goetschel, who heads Swisspeace, a research institute based in Bern. In an email to The Indian Express, Dr Goetschel explained that during the war in the Balkans, and the civil war in Syria, Switzerland had taken over sanctions decided by the EU though they were not backed by a UNSC resolution.

In its official statement announcing sanctions, the Swiss federal government had said that it had weighed its neutrality and peace policy considerations into account to reach its decision. Tobias Vestner, who heads the security and law program at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, spelt out the events that influenced the decision in an email to The Indian Express. Vestner said that the Swiss government has initially adopted a traditional and very narrow interpretation of neutrality, which translated to a decision to not issue any sanctions. However, the Swiss parliament and citizens strongly pushed back, arguing that Russia’s massive military aggression cannot be tolerated. This prompted the government to reconsider its position, said Vestner.

The pushback had been significant indeed. Days after Putin announced “military operations” in Ukraine, thousands of citizens took to the streets in several parts of Switzerland, including Zurich, Bern and Basel. Swiss media service SWI reported that around 20,000 people participated in the Bern demonstration alone and that protesters “jeered whistled the Swiss government” for not supporting the EU sanctions.

When asked if this decision is an exception to its long-standing policy or a deliberate new direction in Swiss politics, Vester said this remains to be seen as the neutrality principle needs to be applied on a case-by-case basis.

“It seems clear, however, that Swiss citizens have increasingly become ‘global citizens’ that care about what happens around the world. Swiss neutrality will thus remain an instrument of Swiss foreign policy, but it will probably not be applied as ‘business-as-usual’ paradigm,” he said.

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