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Could Switzerland defend itself against invasion?

There is no imminent threat of the war between Russia and Ukraine impacting Switzerland militarily. But Swiss MPs and the government are nevertheless concerned about the country’s safety amid rising tensions across Europe and the globe.

Could Switzerland defend itself against invasion?
Could the Swiss army defend Switzerland in case of attack? Photo by SEBASTIEN BOZON / AFP

Switzerland is a small, neutral country that has not been attacked by a foreign power since Napoleon came to call in 1798 – the last time Switzerland took part in a war – and it wasn’t invaded by Germany in WWII.

However, the war in Ukraine has revived the debate around defence, the Swiss military and the equipment available to the army: weapons that go far beyond the Swiss army knife — useful mostly in civilian life but so much in combat.

Both chambers of parliament — the Council of States and National Council — will hold an urgent debate on the war in Ukraine on March 15th and 16th, in particular on its impact on Switzerland’s security policy in a highly unlikely event that the conflict spreads westward.

The issue of readiness is also a hot-button topic within the Defence Ministry.

In the event Switzerland were threatened by the indirect effects of an international conflict – such as a cyberattack or the abusive use of airspace – “we must be prepared for all risks”, Defence Minister Viola Amherd said in an interview with SonnatgsZeitung.

This concern is tied to many changes that Swiss military has undergone in recent decades.

During WWII, the country was ready for combat, with every soldier armed and able to fight his way to his regiment’s assembly point at a moment’s notice.

Also, the military reportedly booby-trapped all tunnels, bridges and viaducts, and were ready to detonate the explosives if Germany dared to invade.

The readiness, and armed population, continued during the Cold War years, but the “gun in every closet” tradition was challenged in 2001, after a disgruntled citizen opened fire with his army rifle inside a regional parliament in Zug, killing 14 and injuring 14 others.

EXPLAINED: Understanding Switzerland’s obsession with guns

The subsequent opposition to widespread gun ownership spearheaded a successful push for stricter arms legislation. 

Then, in 2010, Switzerland scrapped much of its military equipment as it dramatically downsized the armed forces, along with military spending — a trend that had continued in following years.

Even private homes with obligatory fallout shelters to be used in case of an attack were gradually phased out in favour of communal facilities.

READ MORE: Reader question: Where is my nearest nuclear shelter in Switzerland?

Calls for better preparedness

Amherd added that she is in favour of increasing military budget by two billion francs to allow the renewal of the air force —the F/A-18s currently in use will be decommissioned by 2030 — as well as to re-equip ground troops.

Although in 2021 Switzerland’s government backed the purchase of 36 F-35A fighter jets from the US to replace the  country’s current ageing fleet, the decision has sparked public criticism and is still under debate.

Aging Air Force fleet. Photo by JOE KLAMAR / AFP

Meanwhile, MPs from two parties — Swiss People’s Party (SVP) and the Liberals (PLR) — are also calling for an increase in military spending.

SVP deputy Werner Salzmann, who is also the chairman of the Commission for Security Policy, explained that the army has to buy bulletproof vests for all soldiers and equip the current fighter jets to make them suitable for ground combat. He also supports reactivating decommissioned tanks. PLR’s Thierry Burkart is asking for more heavy weapons and combat tanks.

However, there is no way to know for sure whether the current equipment and 147,510 troops (including 102,715 rank and file soldiers) could defend Switzerland from attack. That’s because Switzerland has no previous experience in modern times of armed conflict.

Could Switzerland join NATO?

If Switzerland were a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, it would have help of 30 other countries in the alliance in defending itself in case of attack.

However, as a neutral country, Switzerland can’t join a military alliance and risk being involved in an armed conflict.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: Why isn’t Switzerland in NATO?

“As a sovereign and neutral country, we must first and foremost be able to protect ourselves”, Amherd said.

Some experts, however, are calling on the government to reconsider its position.  Stefan Holenstein, president of the National Conference of Military Organisations, said that “armed neutrality is certainly part of Switzerland’s identity, but joining NATO could be advantageous for Switzerland’s security”.

In any case, the country couldn’t join the alliance even if the government were for it. The issue would be put to a referendum. 

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: Why is Switzerland always neutral?

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‘A beautiful country’: How Ukrainian refugees see Switzerland

The Local’s Helena Bachmann is hosting two young Ukrainians in her home in Vaud. This is their take on the pros and cons of Swiss life.

'A beautiful country': How Ukrainian refugees see Switzerland

When Nadiia, 23, and her brother Roman, 16, left their home, mom and older brother in the city of Odessa, all they knew about Switzerland was that it was beautiful, clean and safe.

After arriving, they say they were not wrong on that score.

Their first impression when they arrived in mid-April was “amazing views, beautiful towns and villages”, Nadiia recalls.

As they got to know their surroundings in the Lake Geneva region, they made even more discoveries. Roman, for instance, was impressed by the state of Swiss roads and how the narrow ones could accommodate two-way traffic.

He also likes that most roads have bicycle lanes.

One advantage of seeing things with a fresh set of eyes is noticing seemingly trivial things that those of us living here don’t pay attention to and mostly take for granted.

Roman mentioned that there is no difference, in terms of infrastructure, between towns and countryside. How many of us have made this astute observation?

And Nadiia commented on the abundance of fountains that spout clean, drinkable water.

READ MORE: Ten things Geneva residents take for granted

Last but not least, and unlike many other foreigners who find the Swiss aloof, Nadiia and Roman’s experience has been the opposite.

All the people they’ve met so far have been “nice, friendly, kind, and helping us integrate”, Nadiia said.

Bottles, paper, batteries

Among their most surprising discoveries (aside from the ones mentioned above) was Switzerland’s recycling system.

Coming from a country where “everything is stuffed together in a bag and thrown into trash” — as Roman described his nation’s approach to recycling — the Swiss way of disposing of waste was a real eye-opener.

The two took to the new ‘recycling culture’ quickly and willingly, hauling household garbage to nearby bins and separating paper, cardboard, plastic and glass bottles, organic waste, and Nespresso coffee capsules more assiduously than we do.

Roman and Nadiia are equal to the (recycling) task. Photo: Helena Bachmann/The Local

“Easier life”

Both siblings like to cook, which we embraced with enthusiasm and gratitude.

We have been the lucky recipients of Ukrainian specialties such as borstch (a beet-based soup), as well as pelmeni and vareniki — round or crescent-shaped dumplings stuffed with ground meat or potatoes, respectively.

Needless to say — and that is a rare thing in our house — everything is made from scratch: beets, cabbage and carrots for the borstch are grated by hand, and the dough is made and kneaded manually as well.

When I pointed out that all the ingredients — such as grated beets and dough can be purchased pre-made, and that people in Switzerland usually don’t spend so much time in the kitchen, the two conceded that life here “is easier” as there are fewer domestic chores to do, but they still prefer the traditional, more laborious way of food preparation.

Prices and bureaucracy

In their six weeks here, the two have noticed some negative aspects of Swiss life as well.

The biggest shock — as is the case for most new arrivals — are the prices.

EXPLAINED: Why is Switzerland so expensive?

On the day after they arrived in Vaud, Roman was stunned that a loaf of bread we bought cost 3 francs, while the same one sells for the equivalent of 50 cents in Ukraine. Cost of other consumer goods has been a shock as well, though they now begin to grasp that Ukrainian prices and wages can’t be extrapolated into Swiss ones.

Another thing the siblings don’t like so much is that shops close by 6:30 pm on most days, after which time there is not much to do, especially in the small town where we live.

Nadiia also mentioned how slow the Swiss bureaucracy is.

While the two received their status S — which allows them and other Ukrainian refugees to stay in Switzerland for a year — relatively quickly, the cantonal procedures related to integration and French language courses take much longer.

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

However, they understand this slowness is due to the large number of Ukrainians that are currently here — more than 3,500 in Vaud as at beginning of May — who have to be processed as well.

The sheer number of people who have sought refuge in the canton in a short period of time is an unprecedented situation for all the services and departments dealing with these refugees, so delays are par for the course.

Oh yes, another important perk…

Among Roman’s personal Swiss-life favourites is the one allowing those over the age of 16 to drink some alcoholic beverages, while the legal drinking age in Ukraine is 18. 

So far he only had one beer, but it’s good to know Switzerland’s charms go well beyond chocolate and edelweiss.