EXPLAINED: Why Switzerland’s neutrality has always been ‘malleable’

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has pushed Switzerland to shed taboos, with calls for rearmament and unprecedented sanctions putting its deeply engrained neutrality to the test of a war in Europe.

A Swiss soldier seen with a Swiss flag in the background. Photo: Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP
Switzerland provided the Axis powers with weapons in World War II, so can it truly say it is a neutral country? Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

Critics in Switzerland have warned that government moves could “torpedo” one of the wealthy Alpine nation’s key principles, dictating no involvement in conflicts between other states.

After Russian troops entered Ukraine on February 24, Bern cited that neutrality when it initially refrained from jumping onboard with biting sanctions imposed by the European Union.

But four days later, the government buckled to international pressure and imposed all the EU sanctions, prompting criticism it was throwing neutrality to the wind.

The move, which the government insisted was “compatible” with its neutrality, was widely welcomed on the international stage.

It even earned a mention in US President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address, when he hailed that “even Switzerland” was with those striving to hold Moscow accountable for its aggression.


But at home, it sparked outrage from the far right, which demands total neutrality, both on military and political. The largest party, the populist right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP), has threatened to push the issue to a referendum, as part of the country’s direct democracy system.

The SVP has also lashed out at Bern’s efforts to gain a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council, warning this would “torpedo” the country’s neutrality.

The government has argued that if it is granted the seat in June elections, it can simply abstain on issues that cast doubt on its neutrality.


The Swiss candidacy has meanwhile received backing from most lawmakers, and all other parties have voiced support for the sanctions.

“This marks a move towards a more active political neutrality,” Swiss-American political scientist Daniel Warner told AFP.

Former president Micheline Calmy-Rey has chimed in, insisting that while militarily neutral, Switzerland is “free to defend its interests by adapting its foreign policy, and is free to impose sanctions”.

Switzerland distinguishes between the law of neutrality — which was codified in The Hague Conventions of 1907 and which imposes non-participation in international armed conflict — and the policy of neutrality.

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

The latter is not governed by law, and its implementation “is determined according to the international context of the moment”, the government explains on its website.

The combination can make for complex policy decisions.

At times it tilts towards “schizophrenia”, Warner said.

He pointed to how Switzerland followed the EU sanctions against Moscow, but refused to participate in a widely-backed boycott at the UN of Russia’s chief diplomat Sergei Lavrov.

This is not the first time Swiss neutrality has been questioned.

“During the Cold War, one could say it was a completely Atlanticist neutrality,” Stephanie Roulin, a Fribourg University historian, told AFP. 

‘Very malleable’ neutrality

The Swiss, she said, had for instance given in to “American pressure” and “secretly committed to respect the economic embargo against the Eastern bloc countries”, agreed in the Hotz-Linder Accord of 1951.

“Swiss neutrality was very malleable and was applied according to Switzerland’s economic and financial interests,” agreed historian Hans-Ulrich Jost, honorary professor at Lausanne University.

He pointed out that Switzerland’s refusal to join the international boycott of South Africa against the racist apartheid system “allowed it to become an intermediary in the gold trade”.

Many observers also suggest Switzerland violated the principle of neutrality during World War II, with massive weapons exports to the Axis powers.

The conflict in Ukraine has also rattled Swiss defence policies, and put previously taboo topics on the table.

Neutrality: Switzerland closes airspace to all parties in Ukraine conflict

Some have gone so far as to evoke a rapprochement with NATO or the EU’s defence cooperation, while calls to boost defence spending have multiplied.

Swiss army chief Thomas Sussli stressed in a recent interview with the Tribune de Geneve daily that if Switzerland needs to defend itself, “neutrality will be null and void”.

In such a case, he said, “We would need to ally ourselves with other states, and possibly also with NATO.”

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
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