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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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For members


‘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