Switzerland's fabled neutral status is about to face its biggest test in decades, with the defence ministry tilting closer to Western military powers in response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
BERN, May 15 (Reuters) - Switzerland's fabled neutral status is about to face its biggest test in decades, with the defence ministry tilting closer to Western military powers in response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
The defence ministry is drawing up a report on security options that include joint military exercises with NATO countries and "backfilling" munitions, Paelvi Pulli, head of security policy at the Swiss defence ministry told Reuters.
The details of the policy options under discussion in the government have not been previously reported.
"Ultimately, there could be changes in the way neutrality is interpreted," Pulli said in an interview last week. On a trip to Washington this week, Defence Minister Viola Amherd said Switzerland should work more closely with the U.S.-led military alliance, but not join it, Swiss media reported.
Neutrality, which kept Switzerland out of both world wars during the 20th century, was not an objective in itself, but was intended to increase Swiss security, Pulli said.
Other options include high-level and regular meetings between Swiss and NATO commanders and politicians, she said.
Moving so much closer to the alliance would mark a departure from the carefully nurtured tradition of not taking sides that its supporters say helped Switzerland prosper peacefully and maintain a special role as intermediary, including during the West's standoff with the Soviet Union.
The idea of full membership of NATO has been discussed, but whereas Sweden and Finland - countries that also have a history of neutrality - are on the verge of joining, Pulli said the report was unlikely to recommend Switzerland take that step.
The report is due to be completed by the end of September when it will go to the Swiss cabinet for consideration.
It will be submitted to parliament for discussion and serve as a basis for possible decisions on the future direction of Swiss security policy. The report itself will not be submitted to a vote.
The defence ministry will also contribute to a broader study being prepared by the foreign ministry. That project will look at the adoption of sanctions, weapons, munitions exports and the relationship with NATO from a neutrality perspective, the foreign ministry said.
UKRAINE REVIVES SWISS NEUTRALITY DEBATE
Switzerland nation has not fought in an international war since 1815, when it adopted neutrality at the Congress of Vienna which ended the French Revolutionary Wars.
The 1907 Hague Convention establishes Switzerland will not take part in international armed conflicts, favour warring parties with troops or armaments, or make its territory available to the warring sides.
Neutrality, included in the constitution, does allow Switzerland the right to self defence and scope on how to interpret the political aspects of the concept not covered by the legal definition.
It was last updated in the early 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union, to allow a foreign policy based on cooperation with other countries in areas like humanitarian aid and disaster relief.
The Ukraine conflict has revived the debate, now centered on the government's decisions to impose sanctions on Russia but to stop short of allowing the re-export of Swiss-made ammunition to Ukraine. read more
"There is a lot of uneasiness that Switzerland cannot contribute more to help Ukraine," Pulli said.
Backfilling - where Switzerland supplies munitions to other countries to replace those sent to Ukraine - is another potential measure, Pulli said, in a shift from the government's policy until now, although direct supply is likely a step too far.
President Ignazio Cassis has ruled out arms deliveries to third countries in support of Ukraine, but, possibly showing a more expansive view of the issue, he has also said that neutrality is not a "dogma" and that failure to respond with sanctions "would have played into the hands of the aggressor."
GROWING SUPPORT FOR NATO
Switzerland already has some ties to NATO, while last year it decided to buy Lockheed Martin (LMT.N) F-35A fighters which are being purchased or already used by some NATO members. read more
Switzerland "cannot join any alliance because of neutrality. But we can work together and the systems we are buying are a good basis for that," defence minister Amherd told broadcaster SRF.
The measures under consideration would be a significant move closer for a country that did not join the United Nations until 2002 and produces many of its own weapons.
Vladimir Khokhlov, spokesman for the Russian embassy in Bern, said such measures would amount to a radical change of policy for Switzerland. Moscow would "not be able to ignore" an eventual renunciation of neutrality, which would have consequences, Khokhlov said. He did not provide further details.
The Swiss military favours greater cooperation with NATO as a way to strengthen national defence, while public opinion has undergone a sea-change since the Ukraine invasion.
More than half of respondents – 56% - supported increased ties with NATO, a recent poll found – well above the 37% average in recent years.
Support for actually joining the treaty remains a minority view, but has grown significantly. The April poll by Sotomo showed 33% of Swiss people supported joining the alliance, higher than the 21% long term view in a separate study by ETH university in Zurich.
"Clearly the Russian invasion of Ukraine has changed a lot of minds. This is seen an attack on our western democratic values," said Michael Hermann of Sotomo.
Thierry Burkart, leader of the right-of-centre Liberal Democratic Party, part of the governing coalition, described a "seismic shift" in how people feel about neutrality.
Neutrality "has to be flexible," he told Reuters.
"Before Ukraine, some people thought there would never be another conventional war in Europe," he said, adding that some had advocated for disbanding the army. "The Ukraine conflict shows we cannot be complacent."
Burkart said he supported higher military spending and a closer relationship with NATO, but not full membership.
However, Peter Keller, general secretary of the far right Swiss People's Party (SVP) told Reuters a closer relationship with NATO was incompatible with neutrality.
The SVP is also part of the governing coalition and is the biggest party in the Swiss lower house of parliament.
"There is no reason to change this successful foreign policy maxim. It has brought peace and prosperity to the people," Keller said.
The defence ministry disagrees. During her visit to Washington, Amherd said the framework of the neutrality law "allows us to work more closely together with NATO and also with our European partners," Tagesanzeiger newspaper reported.
Russian President Vladimir Putin seemed to downplay the significance of Sweden and Finland’s bids to join NATO, marking a major shift in rhetoric.
Stockholm/Kyiv: Vladimir Putin has appeared to climb down from Russia’s objections to Sweden and Finland joining NATO, saying Moscow had no issues with them entering the US-led military alliance they now aim to join in reaction to his invasion of Ukraine.
Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson on Monday (AEST) formally announced the decision to seek NATO membership, upending 200 years of neutrality and nonalignment. Sweden joins Finland in seeking to apply for membership in the NATO defence bloc.
She warned that the Nordic country would be in a “vulnerable position” during the application period and urged her fellow citizens to brace themselves for the Russian response.
However, Putin has reacted by saying NATO’s expansion itself was not a threat. He had previously warned that Moscow would take action if NATO were to move more troops or hardware onto the territory of its new members - steps Finland and Sweden have both already ruled out.
“As far as expansion goes, including new members Finland and Sweden, Russia has no problems with these states - none,” Putin said.
“And so in this sense there is no immediate threat to Russia from an expansion to include these countries.”
The comments appeared to mark a major shift in rhetoric. For decades, Moscow has cast NATO enlargement as a direct threat to Russia’s security, including citing it as a justification for the invasion of Ukraine itself.
Just hours before Putin spoke, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, said Finland and Sweden were making a mistake that would have far-reaching consequences: “They should have no illusions that we will simply put up with it.”
Putin’s own spokesman Dmitry Peskov, asked last Thursday if Finland joining NATO was a threat to Russia, had said: “Definitely. NATO expansion does not make our continent more stable and secure.”
He did, however, say NATO enlargement was being used by the US in an “aggressive” way to aggravate an already difficult global security situation, and that Russia would respond if the alliance moves weapons or troops forward.
“The expansion of military infrastructure into this territory would certainly provoke our response. What that (response) will be - we will see what threats are created for us,” Putin said. “Problems are being created for no reason at all. We shall react accordingly.”
Both non-aligned throughout the Cold War, Finland and Sweden say they now want the protection offered by NATO’s treaty, under which an attack on any member is an attack on all.
“We are leaving one era behind us and entering a new one,” Andersson said, announcing plans to formally abandon the militarily non-aligned status that has been a cornerstone of Swedish national identity for more than 200 years.
“NATO will strengthen Sweden, Sweden will strengthen NATO,” she said.
Swedish and Finnish officials have said Putin has only himself to blame for their decisions to join NATO. Former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt tweeted a picture of a mock award for Putin as “NATO salesman of the year”.
Kjell Engelbrekt, professor of political science at the Swedish Defence University, said Putin appeared to be trying to “limit the damage”, though it was too early to say whether he now accepted NATO’s expansion as “a fait accompli”.
Moscow now had few military options left to follow through on its previous “very assertive” rhetoric demanding the Nordics never join NATO, Engelbrekt said.
“Given that Russian military resources are fairly stretched or even overstretched at the present time ... they could not match an intensification of the rhetoric with the stationing and distribution of more capabilities in this part of Europe anyway.”
Finnish and Swedish accession would radically redraw the strategic map of northern Europe, giving NATO control of nearly the entire Baltic Sea coast and more than doubling the alliance’s land borders with Russia.
Nordic NATO members Norway, Denmark and Iceland said they were ready to assist Finland and Sweden “with all necessary means” during the application process.
France said it stands ready to support Finland and Sweden politically and through “enhanced military interactions”, and protect the country against any threats or aggressions.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that Turkey would not approve Finland and Sweden’s bids to join NATO, calling Sweden a “hatchery” for terrorist organisations, and adding it had terrorists in its parliament.
“Neither of these countries have a clear, open attitude towards terrorist organisation,” Erdogan said. “How can we trust them?”
He said that Swedish and Finnish delegations should not bother coming to Ankara to convince it to approve their NATO bid.
There have been no further updates on the big news of the day—reports by Russian sources that Ukraine had crossed to the east of the Donets River, directly threatening Russian supply lines at Vovchansk. Ukraine doesn’t announce liberated towns until days after the fact. Russia doesn’t know what half its troops are doing at any given time, why give them a head’s up? It also prevents the embarrassment of losing territory after announcing a liberation. One more reason: Ukraine doesn’t want people prematurely streaming back to their homes until the area is clear of invaders, mines, booby traps, dead bodies, and other dangers.
There are two supposed crossings over the Donets, east of Kharkiv. The first is at Staryi Saltiv, where a long bridge was expeditiously repaired, and the second was further north at Rubizhne, where Ukraine reportedly laid a pontoon bridge. This tells us that only the Staryi Saltiv crossing is seeing action large enough to be picked up by satellite heat sensors.
Looking at the FIRMS imagery, something is happening at Ukrainian-held Bazaliyevka, east of Chuhuiv, bordering Russian-held territory. If something is happening there, I could find no report about it anywhere. The forested area east of Izyum remains on fire, as Ukraine reportedly pushes toward Izyum’s western edge.
In the Lyman-Severodonetsk axis, Russia continued to edge closer to those two cities:
As Russia’s war machine falters, its ambitions shrink by the week. I’ve trotted this image out the last few days because it really brings home just how pathetic those “victories” above are to Russia’s war effort.
Meanwhile, this video Monday night from Russian state-run TV’s number one show is getting a great deal of attention:
Every time he’s on, everyone jokes “off to the gulag it is!” Yet he returns. Julia Davis claims they keep him around to “help temper the expectations, while other pundits promise fast, easy victories.” Kamil Galeev has a nice thread on this Mikhail Khodaryonok: “Out of all people in the room he is the most sober one. Why? Well, maybe because he's the only one with the substantial military experience. He's a career officer of the air defence who turned to a pundit career only after retirement.”
You may also remember Khodaryonok as the author of a prescient February 2 article in a Russian military publication warning against the war, “Some representatives of the Russian political class today claim that Russia is able to inflict a crushing defeat on Ukraine in a few hours (called shorter terms) if a military conflict begins. Let's see how such statements correspond to reality.” His predictions were controversial in Russia—that “[n]o one will meet the Russian army with bread, salt and flowers in Ukraine,” and warned that even Russian-speaking Ukrainians would resist. He mocked the idea of a blitzkrieg that would take out Ukrainian defenses in hours. He reminded readers of the “open shock” of Russian aircraft losses to Ukrainian defenses in the 2014 war, and how air superiority didn’t help Russian in the First Chechen war or Afghanistan anyway.
He predicted that “There is no doubt that some reincarnation of Lend-Lease modeled and likeness of World War II will begin on the part of the United States and the North Atlantic Alliance countries,” and that “There may be an influx of volunteers from the West, of whom there may be a lot.” And to those who scoffed at the quality of Ukraine’s military, he had a sage warning, “If until 2014 the Armed Forces of Ukraine were a fragment of the Soviet army, over the past seven years a qualitatively different army has been created in Ukraine, on a completely different ideological basis and largely on NATO standards. And today very modern weapons and equipment are coming and continue to arrive in Ukraine from many countries of the North Atlantic Alliance.”
He concluded, “In general, there will be no Ukrainian blitzkrieg. Statements of some experts such as ‘The Russian army will defeat most of the units of the Armed Forces of Ukraine in 30-40 minutes’, ‘Russia is able to defeat Ukraine in 10 minutes in case of a full-scale war’, ‘Russia will defeat Ukraine in eight minutes’ have no serious reason.”
In print and on TV, he’s been the sole voice of reason inside Russia’s tightly controlled media bubble. For whatever reason Putin keeps him around, it’s too bad no one is actually listening to him.