The End of Swiss Neutrality?

By Ryan Hoi Kit Leung

On 10th August, Ukraine and Switzerland reached an agreement in which the latter will represent Ukrainian interests in Russia. In light of the invasion, Ukraine severed diplomatic relations with Russia followed by the evacuation of its embassy in Moscow. According to Swiss media, Switzerland proposed to use its local embassy to provide necessary aid to Ukrainian nationals living in Russia. Yet, the mandate is firmly rejected by Russia the next day. Citing that Bern has joined the West in waves of ‘illegal’ sanctions, Switzerland has lost its neutral stance and hence is not qualified to act as a mediator. The event strikes as a shocking challenge to Swiss foreign policy. A major global power, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, has officially rejected its status of neutrality. Crucially for Switzerland, its recent actions have shifted its tradition of remaining neutral.

Neutrality has been the central tenet of Swiss foreign policy for centuries. Since the Reformation, the state has restricted itself from overreaching in Europe’s affairs. The last time it engaged in warfare was in 1815 during the Napoleonic War. Since then, it has not engaged in any political or military conflict in the continent or the world. During the Second World War, while states fell one-by-one to the Axis power, Switzerland remain commercial relations with the aggressor, namely Nazi Germany. Its business helped funded the Nazi war effort and stored looted valuables for the power. After the allies’ victory, it came under heavy criticism for turning a blind eye to the holocaust and profiting off war crimes. But it is the reflected dedication to neutrality, that cemented its international status of remaining neutral in global conflicts. Supranational organisations, namely the United Nations, even picked the Swiss city, Geneva, as its headquarters. 21st century Switzerland has successfully maintained this practice. Whilst closely cooperating with European organisations such as the EU and NATO, it does not apply to be a member state, despite following some of the EU’s policies and taking part in NATO’s military drills. 

Focusing back on the war in Ukraine, indeed Switzerland’s approach has juxtaposed its neutrality philosophy. Since the outbreak of war in February, the Swiss authority has repeatedly adopted the EU’s sanction packages on Russia. Beginning by freezing the assets of several Russian figures, to later an embargo on Russia’s popular export. Recently, under the guideline of the G7, an embargo on the importation of Russian gold was declared by Bern. As the world’s second-largest gold-producing country, it has been a primary economic activity in Russia. When the West took a united stance against Russia’s aggression, the unprecedented scale of sanctions and the triggered collapse of the Russian Ruble crippled the economy. The export of gold, initially excluded from those packages, became the main way for Russia to finance the war. As for Switzerland, taking on the embargo on Russian gold is a huge move compared to previous sanctions. The five gold refineries in Switzerland process 70% of the world’s raw mined gold every year. For the country to suspend one of its main suppliers undoubtedly affects its gold production. Yet, the commitment by the Swiss authority strongly reflected its shift in foreign policy, even at the cost of economic development

To address the question of Swiss neutrality and the future of its foreign policy, according to the government, protecting peace and security, and respecting international law, are the core values of the democratic country. On its neutrality, Swiss President Ignazio Cassis condemns the invasion to be against international law, thus compelling Switzerland to intervene. Its authority also promised that in the case of a Chinese military invasion of Taiwan, the country will continue to stand firmly on those values, and adopt similar measures toward the Chinese authority. Thus, it appears Switzerland has truly abandoned its doctrine of complete neutrality. Its leadership has shifted the focus to the security of international law, prioritising it over its neutral status. Compared to its policy during the Second World War, strongly condemning the warmongering Russia is praised by the West, and truly shows the world that Switzerland has changed. 

Nevertheless, despite their sanctions, the Swiss authority assured us that neutrality will remain its foreign policy doctrine. Switzerland has only abandoned its stance on political neutrality, but regarding the possibility of being exposed to an arms conflict, the country will remain militarily neutral. Its military will continue to serve purely for defensive purposes, and withstanding any commitment to NATO. 

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