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Russia questions Switzerland’s Policy of Neutrality
The Ukraine crisis has dramatically altered how nation states view their foreign policies and conduct relations with other nations. For most part of the post-War years when the world was divided into two camps on ideological grounds each lead by the US and the then USSR, there was relative equilibrium with no major threat to the world system and the balance of power in the international system was maintained. This was suddenly altered with the collapse of the Soviet Union when the world turned almost unipolar with the US as the only superpower and later with the rise of China there was an increasing contest from China to the unique American position. The delicately maintained balance of power that helped to maintain the equilibrium has now come under severe assault with the Ukraine war. The world system is now challenged as Russia attempts to regain its lost status. Complicating the system, China has emerged as another aspiring power with claims to be the rule-maker in the world system and even rewrite the rules of the existing global institutions on its own terms. What does this new situation mean for lesser powers who now ponder about their own preferences to have a place in this new emerging system and therefore their futures?
The perception that is being challenged now is that the United States with support of its allies maintained the post-World War II international order and crafted institutions and norms that helped to support the international order serving their interests. In this system, some nations with past glory but lost because of faulty policies are now seeking new voice as they have acquired new strengths. The case of Germany and Japan come into kind. As defeated nations in World War II, these two countries avoided great-power status for three quarters of a century after 1945 and pursued pacifist approaches to foreign policy.
Though the cases of Germany and Japan seeking their own voices in the new international system are in the currency now, there are other smaller nations which are relooking at their foreign policy priorities. As the security perceptions in the wake of the Ukraine crisis threaten some of the Nordic countries, there is a clamour of aligning their interests with the West, particularly with the NATO. The case of Switzerland allegedly abandoning its long-maintained policy of neutrality and aligning its interests with the West has evoked a lot of academic discussion and scrutiny. This article is a modest attempt to examine and analyse this dimension of Switzerland’s policy and what it means in the narrative of international politics. For clarification, though Finland and Sweden are the two Nordic countries seeking membership to the NATO, this is not covered in this analysis. The focus exclusively is on Switzerland.
Switzerland has remained neutral by choice for much of its history in any conflict situation. Such a policy dates back more than a century ago when it offered its “good offices” during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871. That time, Switzerland represented diplomatic interests in France of two belligerents (Bavaria and Baden, both of which merged into the new German Empire). As per available records, during World War I Switzerland held 36 such mandates; and during World War II, 219 mandates. Even in the current Ukraine crisis, Switzerland offered to broker the interests of the Ukrainians in Russia but Russia spurned the offer. Russia felt that Switzerland’s claimed policy of neutrality is questionable now because Switzerland supported the sanctions imposed by the European Union against Russia.
Russia’s stance on imposing trade embargoes can be rebutted by arguing that it has not participated militarily and therefore its value as a mediator remains relevant and therefore must be respected. Even when a summit meeting between former US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was being debated, Switzerland was thought for a while as a neutral venue. Though that did not happen and the chosen venues were Singapore and Hanoi, this time around Russian President Vladimir Putin might see value in Switzerland as a mediator as he shall have no option than to look for a neutral venue for peace talks as there is no sign of the war ending anytime soon. Despite that Switzerland is perceived to be seen seeking membership of the NATO, a flawed preposition, its neutrality continues to remain legal. It is in Putin’s interests if he realises this.
Despite the fact that Sweden and Finland are seeking membership of the NATO, Switzerland faces the hardest dilemma since World War II because of Russia’s attack on Ukraine. Writing for Bloomberg, opinion columnist Andreas Kluth reminds us that an adviser to then-President John F. Kennedy in 1962, just after the Cuban missile crisis, said that “if neutral Switzerland did not exist, we would have had to invent it”. That time, Switzerland’s accustomed role was that of “neutral, helpful and very discreet”. That credibility needs to be acknowledged even now.
Indeed, neutrality has remained as Switzerland’s national identity for centuries. However, this time around, when Switzerland raises issues with Putin’s aggression on Ukraine, its position of neutrality comes into question even when democratic and humanitarian values are trampled upon. Putin spurned Switzerland’s offer of its “good offices” to seek peace arguing that its neutrality position is already diluted. Ukraine would have welcomed Swiss’s involvement to negotiate as, if not more, it could have gathered adequate information about the number of Ukrainian children and civilian who are missing during Russia’s military operation.
The terms such as ‘protecting power’ and ‘good offices’ are consistent with international law. In international law and international relations, the term ‘good offices’ under the UN Charter refers to all diplomatic and humanitarian initiatives by a third country or a neutral institution whose purpose is to resolve a bilateral or international conflict or to bring the parties to the negotiating table. They refer to neutral nations assuming the functions of embassies on behalf of countries that have severed diplomatic relations. Switzerland's good offices are a long-standing tradition and play a key role in Swiss peace policy. Switzerland can build bridges where others are prevented from doing so, because it does not belong to any power bloc and does not pursue a hidden agenda.
Switzerland supports conflicting parties in their search for a negotiated solution, either acting as mediator directly or supporting negotiations and the mediation of other states or international and regional organisations. As a protecting power, it safeguards the interests of foreign states.
Switzerland’s neutrality credentials are high and this cannot be questioned. Its past roles in World War I and World War II are already highlighted. In contemporary times, its offer of good offices and such services for the US in Iran and for Iran in Egypt are noteworthy. Switzerland also played mediating role between Russia and Georgia after Putin invaded Georgia in 2008. For example, if a Georgian needs a visa, he/she can go to the Swiss embassy in Moscow where dedicated staff shall come to help.
Switzerland’s neutrality credentials were dented somewhat during the Cold War as its mandates declined but its reputation remained intact. For both the US and Cuba as adversaries, Switzerland remained useful to both. As a backchannel player, its roles have remained useful and prevented disasters erupting among potential combatants. This was possible as both the US and Cuba saw merit in Switzerland’s potential role to mediate. Same cannot be said for the Russia-Ukraine crisis as Russia no longer views Switzerland as neutral.
The truism however is that since Russia’s military operation in Ukraine on 24 February 2022, Switzerland is walking on a tightrope. Critics do not see Switzerland’s policy kindly. They say that its policies are self-serving as its banks, boarding schools and other institutions benefit from the Russian money. There are rumours suggesting that Swiss markets trade in Russian oil and other commodities. Bern argues that despite not being a member of the European Union, it has joined the EU in imposing sanctions. For this reason, Putin questions Switzerland’s claim of neutrality.
The neutrality argument is complicated. Switzerland argues what neutrality means and how it is implemented. It does not mean impartiality. According to Bern, even a neutral state has the right to political opinions and cooperation, and can stand up for its fundamental values such as democracy, the rule of law and human rights. The brochure of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, Bern, explains “Swiss neutrality no longer needs to be invented, but understanding its importance and role is important” for the country today and in the future. This document clarifies that neutrality only means that the country cannot become a party to international conflict, precluding also joining military alliances such as the NATO. This explains that Switzerland’s relevance as a possible neutral venue for talks across the table to seek resolution to conflict between two or more parties continues to remain relevant.
Putin does not seem to be convinced that Switzerland still remains neutral. Russia’s Foreign Ministry in a statement said that Switzerland cannot represent Ukrainian interests after losing its neutrality. Russian Foreign Ministry Deputy Spokesman Ivan Nechayev said that Switzerland lost its neutrality after joining sanctions on Moscow and therefore its role as a mediator and representative was out of the question. Moscow feels that Switzerland cannot represent Ukrainian interests in Russia and vice versa. Thus it transpires that the only window for a possible thaw to the conflict by using the good offices of Switzerland seems to have been closed as Putin is unlikely to soften Russia’s position in Ukraine. This leaves Ukraine’s future in uncertain terrain.
Prof. Rajaram Panda
(Senior Fellow at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library in New-Delhi -Indian Council of World Affairs)
13 September 2022
Mark Leonard, “The Real End of Pax Americana”, Foreign Affairs, 13 June 2022, HTTPS://WWW.FOREIGNAFFAIRS.COM/ARTICLES/JAPAN/2022-06-13/REAL-END-PAX-AMERICANA?UTM_MEDIUM=NEWSLETTERS&UTM_SOURCE=TWOFA&UTM_CAMPAIGN=THE%20CONSEQUENCES%20OF%20CONQUEST&U
Andreas Kluth, “Can Switzerland Stay Neutral Toward Putin’s Fascism?”, 19 August 2022, https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2022-08-19/ukraine-war-can-switzerland-stay-neutral-toward-putin-s-fascism?utm_medium=email&utm_source=newsletter&utm_term=22
 “Swiss Neutrality”, 2022, 20 pages, https://www.eda.admin.ch/eda/en/home/services-and-publications/publications/alle-publikationen.html/content/publikationen/en/eda/schweizer-aussenpolitik/Neutralitaet_Schweiz
 “Switzerland cannot represent Ukrainian interests after losing neutrality — Russian MFA”, 11 August 2022,