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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Ukraine and allies lay foundations for reconstruction at Swiss conference

Allies of Ukraine meeting in Switzerland were due Tuesday to adopt a declaration spelling out the principles and priorities of rebuilding the war-shattered country, estimated to cost at least $750 billion.

Ukraine and allies lay foundations for reconstruction at Swiss conference

Leaders from dozens of countries, international organisations and businesses have been meeting in the southern Swiss city of Lugano under tight security since Monday, discussing the best path forward for reconstruction, even as Russia’s war continues to rage in Ukraine.

‘A beautiful country’: How Ukrainian refugees see Switzerland

Speaking on the first day of the Ukraine Recovery Conference, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and a long line of government ministers described the massive destruction caused by Russia’s February 24 invasion.

“Reconstruction of Ukraine is not a local task of a single nation,” Zelensky said via video message. “It is a common task of the whole democratic world,” he said.

Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said the recovery “is already estimated at $750 billion”. “The key source of recovery should be the confiscated assets of Russia and Russian oligarchs,” he said.

“The Russian authorities unleashed this bloody war. They caused this massive destruction, and they should be held accountable for it”.

READ MORE: Switzerland extends sanctions against Russia over Ukraine invasion

The conference, which had been planned before the invasion, had originally been slated to discuss reforms in Ukraine before being repurposed to focus on recovery.

Shmyhal laid out the government’s phased reconstruction plan, focused first on the immediate needs of those affected by the war, followed by the financing of thousands of longer-term reconstruction projects aimed at making Ukraine European, green and digital.

Those priorities are expected to be reflected in a final Lugano Declaration setting out the general principles defining a framework for rebuilding Ukraine, which should be adopted when the conference wraps up around midday Tuesday.

As billions of dollars in aid flow into Ukraine, lingering concerns about widespread corruption in the country mean far-reaching reforms will also be seen as a condition for any recovery plan decided.

The former Soviet state has long been ranked among the world’s most corrupt countries by Transparency International.

In Europe, only Russia and Azerbaijan ranked worse.

The Ukrainians have proposed that allied countries “adopt” specific regions of Ukraine, and lead the recovery there to render it more efficient. Britain has proposed taking on the Kyiv region, while a diplomatic source said France would concentrate on the heavily-hit Chernihiv region.

Total Resistance: The Swiss Cold War manual inspiring Ukraine’s fight against Russia

In all, around 1,000 people are attending the conference, including European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who let out an enthusiastic “Slava Ukraini” (glory to Ukraine) after insisting on the importance of rebuilding a Ukraine better than before the war.