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UKRAINE

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

‘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
 

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