Sanctions on Russia: Is Switzerland still a neutral nation?

Switzerland’s decision to join the international community in imposing sanctions on Russia surprised many, with some arguing the country was eroding its hard-fought tradition of neutrality. Here’s what you need to know.

Swiss President Ignazio Cassis adjusts a microphone. Photo: Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP
Swiss President Ignazio Cassis adjusts a microphone. Photo: Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

Along with cheese, chocolate and watches, neutrality ranks as one of Switzerland’s trademarks. 

While Switzerland is far from the world’s only neutral country, it is perhaps the best-known example. 

READ MORE: Switzerland to impose sanctions on Russia

Switzerland adopted its position of “perpetual neutrality” after the last war in which it took part ended in 1815 with Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo. 

Throughout world wars and regional conflicts, Switzerland’s neutrality has been frequently tested but has remained a trademark of the Alpine nation’s foreign policy.  

A “one-time step” or a “sharp break with neutrality”?

When the announcement was made, Swiss President Ignazio Cassis acknowledged that while the step was “unique” Switzerland was not abandoning its “untouchable” commitment to neutrality, countering that “playing into the hands of an aggressor is not neutral.”

“This is a one-time step by Switzerland, which we should not take lightly from the point of view of neutrality.”

On Monday afternoon, a number of international news sources sounded the death knell for Switzerland’s neutral traditions, including the New York Times and Germany’s Spiegel. 

EXPLAINED: Why is Switzerland always neutral?

London’s Financial Times wrote “Switzerland broke with its longstanding tradition of political neutrality on Monday” while the Washington Post reported the decision was a “sharp break with its long-standing neutrality”. 

Closer to home, MP Roger Köppel, from the right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP), said the Swiss government had “buckled”, arguing that it “did not have the strength to uphold (the principle of) neutrality”. 

The SVP was the only mainstream Swiss political party to oppose the sanctions on Russia. 

Is Switzerland no longer a neutral nation? 

International law professor Oliver Diggelmann, from the University of Zurich told The Local on Tuesday that although Switzerland’s announcement was significant, it did not represent an end to Swiss neutrality. 

“Switzerland remains a neutral country,” Diggelmann said. 

“(Neutral) states have a legal obligation, which comes from their status as permanent neutrals, to not participate militarily in an armed conflict between states and to not support a conflict party with arms.”

Diggelmann emphasised that being committed to neutrality did not mean a commitment to doing nothing. 

UPDATE: How Switzerland could be impacted by the Russian invasion of Ukraine

“Yesterday, the Swiss government recognised that not fully sanctioning such a blatant violation economically would make (Switzerland) an indirect accomplice of the aggressor. It openly positioned itself against a great power, even though only economically, which also marks a cesura in the Swiss political culture.”

Swiss historian and former diplomat Paul Widmer agreed, telling Swiss news outlet 20 Minutes on Tuesday “the policy of neutrality means that Switzerland does not take sides in a conflict.” 

Widmer said the decision to impose sanctions was in fact an exercise of neutrality, rather than a departure from the principle. 

“If there are blatant violations of international law and all other Western countries take sanctions, but we don’t take sides, also indirectly.”

Diggelmann said Switzerland’s actions showcased the “soft element of neutrality”, whereby Switzerland was “upholding the principles of the international order” while also maintaining its status as a possible mediator of any dispute. 

“Even with the new position, though, Switzerland can offer its good offices (to mediate between Ukraine and Russia). With its legal status as a militarily permanent neutral state, with the second UN seat in Geneva, with its protection power mandate for Russia and Georgia – and Georgia in Russia – and its straightforward diplomats, it still is predestined to play such a role in case Russia would be willing to enter into such a peace process.”

Geneva: Will Switzerland host a ‘peace’ meeting between Russia and Ukraine?

Although Switzerland’s commitment to neutrality is centuries-old, there is scope for gradual evolution of the principle at law. 

“We have to keep in mind, however, that the concept of neutrality (with its legal and soft elements) was never a concept with entirely clear cut elements carved in stone. It rather an instrument which needs being adjusted from time to time to new circumstances,” Diggelmann told The Local. 

Laurent Goetschel, Director of the Swiss Peace Foundation and a Political Science Professor at the University of Basel, said the fact Switzerland was upholding international law meant that its motives could not be questioned regarding neutrality. 

“If there had been even the slightest suspicion that Switzerland could derive economic benefit from the conflict, that would have resulted in a major image problem,” Goetschel told 20 Minutes. 

“Switzerland’s neutrality is definitely not obsolete.

“In terms of its core competence in foreign policy, Switzerland should even decide on more extensive sanctions independently.”

While Switzerland had come under fire for waiting to impose the sanctions, Widmer also argued this was the correct approach. 

“An immediate and unseen adoption of EU sanctions would have resulted in Switzerland being perceived by Russia as part of the EU and NATO bloc.”

“(Switzerland’s Federal Council) proved that neutrality is not a matter of the heart, but a matter of the mind.”

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‘Limited capacity’: How the Swiss right wants to shut out western Ukrainian refugees

With about 51,000 refugees from Ukraine currently in Switzerland, right-wing politicians argue in favour of introducing geographic vetting in regards to who can qualify for Status S, saying Switzerland has "limited capacity" for refugees.

'Limited capacity': How the Swiss right wants to shut out western Ukrainian refugees

After Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24th, the Federal Council activated, for the first time ever, the ‘S status’ authorising Ukrainians and Ukraine residents fleeing the war to live temporarily in Switzerland.

The special status is initially valid for a year, but can be extended. Anyone who is still in Switzerland after five years receives a B permit.

Included is also the right to work, as well as free health care and language courses. The refugees also have the right to free public transportation, but this perk will end on May 31st, with no word yet whether it will be renewed.

READ MORE: Switzerland’s special ‘S permit’ visa program: What Ukrainians need to know

Now, however, “the great solidarity with refugees from Ukraine is cracking”, according to SonntagsZeitung, which reports that rightwing politicians in Switzerland are “beginning to question our country’s culture of hospitality”.

The right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP), which has consistently opposed sanctions on Russia, is calling on the government to limit the S status  only to Ukrainians who come from the eastern part of the country, which is currently most impacted by Russia’s invasion.  

This movement is spearheaded by MP Martina Bircher, who argues that Switzerland is reaching its limits in terms of the number of refugees it can accommodate and support, and it should therefore grant S status only to those fleeing the most conflict-ridden regions of Ukraine, like the eastern part.

Other right-of-centre groups are in favour of this “regionalisation” as well. Andrea Caroni, president of the centre-right Liberal Party, supports the idea of granting the special status based on the geographical evolution of the Ukrainian conflict, saying Switzerland “ultimately has limited capacity” to absorb refugees from Ukraine. 

He said, however, that such a measure “must be coordinated at the European level.”

Not everyone, however, agrees with Bircher’s proposal.

According to Gerhard Pfister, president of the Centre Party, adopting geographical limitations “would create two classes of Ukrainians. This is not right”.

It is unclear how the SVP would seek to draw barriers to distinguish between the east and west of the country. 

As for the Conference of Cantonal Directors of Social Affairs, vice-president Marianne Lienhard said the organisaton will discuss the proposal at its next meeting at the end of May.

Cantons are directly affected by the influx of Ukrainians, as they will eventually bear the cost of supporting the refugees — the cost which is currently borne mostly at a federal level.

The “NZZ am Sonntag” calculated that in 2022, the costs of housing, health insurance, and general support will amount to between 1.25 and 2.25 billion francs. In 2023, these expenses could climb to 7.5 billion.

“Fake” refugees

In an article she wrote for the SVP website, Bircher also argued that some refugees pretending to be Ukrainian actually aren’t.

As an MP from Aargau, she claims that out of 12 people who received the S status in a small town in her canton, only seven were Ukrainian nationals. The other five came from Africa.

Among them are  “Kenyan and Lebanese men who claim to have lived in Ukraine or who actually lived there before the war, but who do not have a Ukrainian passport”.

The S permit scheme does not only provide protection for Ukrainian citizens, but also citizens of other countries who live in Ukraine. 

While reserved predominantly for Ukrainians, the S status has also been occasionally granted to citizens of other countries. 

According to the State Secretariat for Migration (SEM), about 1,000 “other” refugees received this status as well, including 238 Russians, and  people from Germany, France, Italy, the United States, Canada and Australia.

In such cases, children have a different passport from their parents, but it is the parents’ nationality and place of residence that defines whether the status is granted.

So it could happen that the parents have Ukrainian passports, while their children are citizens of other nations.

READ MORE: Swiss MPs call for Russian money to be used to reconstruct Ukraine