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How Switzerland is preparing to fend off Russian cyberattacks

While there is no imminent military threat against Switzerland, the government is getting ready for another kind of warfare with Russia — a digital one. What is it and why it could impact the entire Swiss population?

How Switzerland is preparing to fend off Russian cyberattacks
Switzerland’s electricity supply would be at risk in a cyberattack. Photo by Pixabay

The Federal Council’s sanctions against Russia after the outbreak of war in Ukraine expose Switzerland to retaliatory measures in cyberspace, according to a report by RTS public broadcaster.

Russia is reportedly angry about the neutral Switzerland’s support of EU measures and even placed the country on its blacklist of enemy nations.

READ MORE: Why is Switzerland on Russia’s ‘enemy country’ list – and what does it mean?

This is a new challenge for Switzerland, which has not been invaded in a conventional way in more 220 years, and has not fought in an armed conflict against another country even longer than that.

But now, “we can expect that the authorities and the [Swiss] financial institutions will be exposed and particularly targeted by the attackers”, the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) warned.

What exactly is cyberattack and how would such action against Switzerland impact you?

In general terms, this means that hackers damage, disable or destroy a computer network or system.

They can steal personal information related to bank accounts, credit cards, health history, and a wide range of other sensitive details.

It is bad enough when this happens to individuals, groups, or businesses. But imagine the extent of damage if hackers shut down essential government and civilian infrastructure, disrupting critical systems like power grids.

This could cause electrical blackouts, paralyse telecoms, hospitals, and other vital operations.

Experts warn that the whole country would stop functioning and no household or individual would be left untouched.

“Critical infrastructures are always more exposed than other infrastructures so we have to take stricter measures”, according to Michael Frank, director of the Association of Swiss Electrical Companies.

“The entire range of cyberattacks is within Russia’s capabilities, from blocking banking systems, shutting down power grids and cutting the water supply, to sabotaging communication networks”, AFP reports.

READ MORE: How Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has already changed Switzerland

Is Switzerland sufficiently prepared to fight off such an attack from Russia?

NCSC said it is constantly analysing the situation in collaboration with the Federal Intelligence Service. But what about the industries that would be most impacted by such an attack?

According to RTS, their level of readiness varies:

Nuclear power stations

The Federal Nuclear Safety Inspectorate (IFSN), a supervisory authority for the nuclear installations in Switzerland, reports that “Swiss nuclear power plants are currently not facing a significant increase in cyberattacks in connection with the war in Ukraine”.

“But it goes without saying that attention has increased even further in the field of critical infrastructure, in particular in the energy sector, after the invasion of Ukraine”.

Swissgrid (electricity supply)

The national company responsible for the electricity transmission network, Swissgrid did not release details of its cybersecurity strategy but said it took all the necessary measures to guarantee the safety of the systems.

“Cybersecurity is of major strategic importance and is anchored in the company’s objectives”, Swissgrid said.

However, a report released by IFSN in July 2021, noted that Switzerland’s energy sector is “particularly ill-equipped when it comes to recognising attacks, reacting to them, and restoring their systems after an incident”.

But according to the report, the situation is slightly better in terms of prevention.

Swisspower (industrial services)

A strategic alliance of 22 industrial services and regional energy management companies, Swisspower launched a cybersecurity centre three years ago. It is a “computer emergency response team to combat cyber threats specifically targeting the energy sector”.

Following the flaws in its security that were revealed in June 2021 in the report of the Federal Office of Energy, Swisspower “has recognised that it must strengthen its resilience in the field of cybersecurity”, the company said.

Swiss Bankers Association

“Cybersecurity is an absolute priority for banks and they do everything they can to prevent cyber risks”, the umbrella organisation for Switzerland’s financial institutions said.

It added that Swiss banks “have always applied the most demanding standards in terms of security, in a concerted manner within the branch and in cooperation with the authorities “.

READ MORE: Could Switzerland defend itself against invasion?

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‘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