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How Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has already changed Switzerland

In just a short time, the situation in Ukraine has shaken some of Switzerland’s long-held beliefs and reshuffled its national priorities. This is how.

How Russia's invasion of Ukraine has already changed Switzerland
Switzerland is set to purchase F-35A fighter jets for its Air Force. Photo: Pixabay

Ever since the Cold War ended in December 1989, Switzerland has lived peacefully and mostly unaffected by various political and economic upheavals in other countries.

Even surrounded by the European Union, it made, and stuck by, its own rules. Although it signed a number of bilateral agreements with the EU — mostly for its own benefit — it continued to stubbornly uphold its neutrality.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: Why is Switzerland always neutral?

The Ukraine war, however, has forced Switzerland to rethink its positions on the notion of sovereignty and national security, and take some unprecedented measures.

As Swiss news portal Watson put it, “the last few days have shown that the Ukraine war not only challenges our neutrality, but also tumbles political taboos”.

This is how:

Sanctions and neutrality

As a neutral nation, Switzerland has not taken sides in political — and even less so, military — conflicts.

However, in a sharp break from this tradition, Switzerland joined the international community in imposing sanctions on Russia.

When the announcement was made on February 28th, 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.”

READ MORE: Sanctions on Russia: Is Switzerland still a neutral nation?

The Ukraine invasion also strengthened Switzerland’s resolve to join the United Nations Security Council in 2023. 

The Swiss government believes Security Council membership will strengthen the country’s international standing.

President Ignazio Cassis insisted that Switzerland’s neutrality was not at risk, the domestic ATS news agency reported.

“Our candidacy is in the interest of Switzerland as much as in that of the world,” he told lawmakers.

“A neutral state listening to minorities, we are always looking for compromise.”

Switzerland’s position on the Council comes just 20 years after joining the UN. 

READ MORE: Switzerland one step closer to UN Security Council seat despite neutrality concerns

National security

While at the moment there is no threat of the war between Russia and Ukraine impacting Switzerland militarily, Swiss MPs and the government are nevertheless concerned about the level of the country’s safety and defence preparedness.

In the past decade, not seeing any threats to its security, Switzerland has scrapped much of its military equipment as it dramatically downsized the armed forces, along with military spending — a trend that has continued in following years.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, however, has been a game changer. Swiss Defence Minister Viola Amherd spoke 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.

The Social Democrats, Greens and the Group for a Switzerland without an Army have even launched an initiative to prevent the purchase of the US jets, with the referendum to take place in 2023.

However, with the war in Eastern Europe, there is heightened urgency and the issue of fighter jets is suddenly becoming less contentious. In fact, MPs don’t want to wait for the referendum vote, but sign the purchase agreement this year. “We have to act now”, MP Thierry Burkart said.

He is also asking for more heavy weapons and combat tanks, while another deputy, Werner Salzmann, who is also the chairman of the Commission for Security Policy, urged the army to buy bulletproof vests for all soldiers and equip the current fighter jets to make them suitable for ground combat.

READ MORE: Could Switzerland defend itself against an invasion?

Security Council

Also, in an unprecedented move spurred by the war in Ukraine, Switzerland has applied for a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council for the years 2023 and 2024.

Right-wing MPs argue Switzerland’s presence in the Council would not be compatible with the principle of sovereignty. For the government, however, while this mandate may be a break with the tradition of non-involvement, it does not erode neutrality. On the contrary — this seat would allow Switzerland to make itself better heard and to engage in an influential way for peace.

“It is clearly in times of crisis that the world needs, within the Security Council, to have the voice of a neutral, non-aligned country”, MP Laurent Wehrli told RTS public broadcaster.

READ MORE: How will the war in Ukraine impact the cost of living in Switzerland?

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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.

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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.