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Why some Swiss Covid sceptics are now supporting Russia’s invasion

The two issues seem to have a relatively minimal ideological connection, but prominent members of the Swiss Covid sceptic scene are now throwing their weight behind Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Covid sceptic protesters during a rally in the Swiss city of Bern. Photo: Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP
Covid sceptic protesters during a rally in the Swiss city of Bern. Photo: Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

Just 69 percent of Switzerland is fully vaccinated against Covid, a rate much lower than most of Western Europe. 

While the reasons for the low rate of vaccination are many and varied, one major factor is Switzerland’s strong and increasingly radicalised anti-vaccination scene. 

Protests were common throughout the pandemic. While these were most prominently seen in German-speaking parts of the country, protests were also seen in French-speaking cantons and Ticino. 

READ MORE: Why is German-speaking Europe lagging on Covid vaccines?

Swiss news outlet 20 Minutes reports that several anti-vaccine networks on social media, primarily using Russian messenger service Telegram, but also Twitter and WhatsApp, have now begun incorporating pro-Russian and pro-invasion views.

This includes noted German conspiracy theorists and sometime musicians Xavier Naidoo and Michael Wendler, both of whom have large online followings. 

While there may appear not to be a significant link between Covid denial and support for Russia’s invasion, online groups have argued that Western governments have sought to whip up interest in the conflict to switch the focus from the pandemic. 

20 Minutes, which elected not to name the online groups, quoted one saying the Ukraine invasion was the “perfect occasion for governments and media to distract from the damage caused by the corona measures and vaccination”, while several others sought to emphasise “We stand by Russia, by President Putin.”

Several other Covid sceptic groups have not directly endorsed Putin or the invasion, but have been heavily critical of Switzerland’s decision to support EU sanctions, saying it amounts to a “suspension of neutrality”, including groups like Aufrecht Schweiz, Aktionsbündnis Urkantone (AU) and Massvoll. 

AU issued a statement saying “(due to) the current sanctions against Russia, Switzerland’s constitutional neutrality, which has proven itself over the past 200 years, has been broken and completely thrown overboard.”

While experts agree with the Swiss government’s contention that neutrality does not mean doing nothing in the face of aggression, those on the far-right – including prominent members of Switzerland’s right-wing Swiss People’s Party – have echoed comments that Switzerland has sacrificed its neutrality. 

READ ALSO: ‘A weapon of war’: Swiss politician calls for neutrality referendum

Why are Switzerland’s anti-vaxxers now pro-Putin?

Experts highlight several reasons for the shift, including a desire to sit on the fringes of all political discussions and trust of Russian state media. 

Dirk Baier, a conspiracy theory expert from the Zurich University of Applied Sciences, said the main thread linking opposition to vaccines and support for the invasion was not anything directly related to the issues, but a desire to position oneself against the “mainstream”. 

“Had it not been for the war in Ukraine, it would be a different issue on which these individuals would have gone in opposition to the widely held interpretation shared by the majority of society,” Baier told 20 Minutes. 

Baier points out that Covid sceptic groups had developed a sense of identity and connection, which began to be lost as Covid fell from the front pages. 

As a result, the energy and drive that had been centred around Covid scepticism has been repurposed into ‘critical thought’ on other prominent matters of the day. 

Baier said the role played by Russian state-run media outlets like RT in promoting anti-vaccine views has meant these sources, which have continually towed the Kremlin line on the reason for invasion and have downplayed the brutal nature of the conflict, are seen to be more trustworthy than other sources. 

Marko Kovic, a conspiracy theory expert, told Switzerland’s Watson news outlet that Russian news services have established Putin as a bullwark against the western liberal order. 

“In conspiracy ideological circles, the Putin regime and its outlets are seen as sources of truth that heroically oppose the global conspiracy. This conspiracy narrative is actively being served by the Kremlin” Kovic said. 

Citing the ‘sunk costs fallacy’ principle of economics, Kovic also pointed out that many conspiracy theorists stay loyal to their ideas, even if they are radically illogical, as they are close to their identity and it would hurt too much to give up on them. 

“People in the pro-action movement have invested a lot of time and energy in their worldview. Giving up hurts. Therefore: the show must go on; a new conspiracy is needed; everything is connected with everything.”

Sanctions on Russia: Is Switzerland still a neutral nation?

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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.

‘A beautiful country’: How Ukrainian refugees see Switzerland

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.