War in Ukraine puts centuries of Swiss neutrality to the test
In Eastern Europe, the Ukrainians are in the trenches. Further west, European capitals grapple with a new order in which war is no longer theoretical. Yet, nestled in the heart of the continent, the Swiss worry about higher ideals.
In the Swiss capital, nestled beneath snow-capped mountains, inside parliamentary chambers of stained glass and polished wood, the debate revolves around the country’s vaunted legacy of neutrality – and what neutrality even means in a new era of war for Europe.
It turns out that Switzerland has an arms industry that manufactures much-needed ammunition for some of the weapons the Europeans have supplied to Ukraine, as well as some of the Leopard 2 main battle tanks they have promised.
But it also has strict rules on where those weapons can go – namely a law, now hotly debated, that prohibits any nation that buys Swiss weapons from sending them to the party. to a conflict, like Ukraine.
The war tests Swiss tolerance to stand aside and serve the global elite on an equal footing, placing the country in a bind of competing interests.
Its arms manufacturers say their inability to export now could make it impossible to retain critical Western customers. European neighbors pull the Swiss in one direction, while a tradition of neutrality pulls in another.
“It’s being a neutral state that exports arms that put Switzerland in this situation,” said Oliver Diggelmann, professor of international law at the University of Zurich. “He wants to export weapons to do business. He wants to assert his control over these weapons. And he also wants to be the good guy. This is where our country is stumbling now.
Switzerland has managed to cling to neutrality for centuries and through two world wars. It is a position supported by 90% of its 8.7 million inhabitants, who consider it a national ideal. Hosts of the United Nations and the Red Cross in Geneva, they see themselves as peacemakers and humanitarians of the world.
But Western nations now see Switzerland’s hesitation – both on exports and on sanctions against Russia, which Western diplomats suspect Switzerland is not doing enough to enforce – as proof that the the country’s motivation is less idealism than business.
Switzerland, whose banks are notoriously secretive and often accused of laundering money for the global kleptocratic class, remains the world’s largest center of offshore wealth. This includes about a quarter of the global total, no doubt serving many Russian oligarchs allied with President Vladimir V. Putin.
A senior Western official, who did not want to be identified because he was negotiating with the Swiss, said the status quo left Western diplomats feeling that Switzerland was pursuing “a neutrality of economic advantages”.
Months of hand-twisting have not made the Alpine nation dear to its neighbors.
“Everyone knows that this harms Switzerland. The whole EU is annoyed. Americans are unhappy. The resentment also comes from the Russians. We all know it hurts us,” said Sacha Zala, a historian of Swiss neutrality at the University of Bern. “But it shows how deep this belief in neutrality is in our heads.”
For historians, Switzerland’s neutrality has much more to do with waging war than avoiding it.
From the Middle Ages to the early modern era, the then impoverished Alpine cantons that make up present-day Switzerland hired mercenaries in wars across Europe. Many made arms to accompany these armies; the Vatican’s Swiss Guard is a relic of that time.
“The earlier idea of neutrality was neutrality to serve both sides,” Mr Zala said.
Swiss neutrality began to be formalized after the Napoleonic Wars, when European powers agreed that it could create a buffer between regional powers.
It was later codified in the Hague Convention of 1907 – the basis of Swiss neutrality today. The convention required neutral states to refrain from war and to maintain equidistance between warring parties – they could sell arms, for example, but only if they did so for all parties to a conflict. It also obliges neutral countries to ensure that their territories are not used by belligerent forces.
This led to what the Swiss call “armed neutrality” – a commitment not just to neutrality, but to maintaining the ability to protect it. The latter is what critics now say is under threat.
Supporters of the Swiss arms industry agree that it has no major economic impact for the country. Employing 14,000 people, it represents less than 1% of GDP. But they say it is essential to armed neutrality.
“Armed neutrality needs soldiers, weapons, equipment – and an arms industry. Our neutrality must be armed, otherwise it is useless,” said Werner Salzmann, a member of the conservative Swiss People’s Party.
The Swiss defense industry depends on exports, he said, and could not survive without them.
Switzerland plays a crucial role with Germany, one of Ukraine’s biggest military supporters. The Swiss company Oerlikon-Bührle is indeed the only producer of ammunition for the Gepard, a self-propelled anti-aircraft gun of which Berlin has sent dozens to Ukraine. The Swiss have so far blocked German efforts to purchase new ammunition.
Europeans and major players in the defense industry are increasingly fearful of manufacturing weapons or critical parts in Switzerland. Rheinmetall, the German arms manufacturer that owns the Swiss company, plans to open a factory to manufacture these cartridges in Germany.
“For the next two to three years we will continue to produce because of old contracts that we have to fulfill,” said Matthias Zoller, arms industry spokesman at Swissmem, a trade group. “But we don’t have any orders coming. The export market will just be dead.”
Earlier this year, the business-friendly Swiss Free Democrats dreamed up a legal loophole that most lawmakers seemed to accept: They would allow countries that share Switzerland’s democratic values to re-export Swiss-made weaponry.
But last week, the Swiss People’s Party, the largest in parliament, rejected the bill, seeing it too clearly as a measure aimed at Ukraine – and therefore a violation of neutrality.
Swiss lawmakers have since drawn up six counter-proposals. But none of them allows Swiss weapons to reach Ukraine within a year.
Western countries recognize that Swiss contributions would be largely symbolic. But they argue that although Switzerland has benefited for decades from being effectively protected by NATO, surrounded by member states, it has shown no willingness to help those states now.
Thierry Burkart, the Free Democrat who drafted the original bill, said Switzerland could no longer afford to ignore this frustration. “We are embedded in Western partnerships – not in the sense of a binding NATO alliance, but because the West is where our values are also shared,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we’re not neutral, but we shouldn’t block aid between Western countries.”
In Swiss cities, many buildings display the blue and yellow flag of Ukraine. The sympathy is obvious. Even most lawmakers opposed to looser export rules openly call Russia the aggressor state. Yet this did not soften their stance on neutrality.
Instead, some conservative politicians are collecting signatures to provoke a referendum on incorporating an even stricter interpretation of neutrality into the Swiss Constitution.
“There are only two options – that’s it,” said Walter Wobmann, a conservative lawmaker promoting the initiative. “Can you be half pregnant? You can only be pregnant or not. Either we are neutral, and we go all the way. Or we enter into an alliance, such as NATO. “Which is it? Switzerland has to decide.
Then there are the sanctions against Russia, which Washington and Europe fear Switzerland will fail to enforce vigorously.
The Swiss only froze 7.5 billion Swiss francs, or about $8 billion, of Russian assets. That’s a small proportion of what the Swiss economy ministry says is about $49.3 billion in Russian assets in the country. European officials suspect the total could be higher, up to $200 billion.
Even so, when Switzerland imposed its sanctions, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei V. Lavrov accused the nation of abandoning its neutrality.
And Swiss history, argued historian M. Zala, is the best argument to explain why neutrality has never been as clear a concept as many think.
“Saying you are neutral is like saying you are a good Christian,” he said. “What does this actually mean? What is a good Christian? And what is neutrality?
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