The Ukrainian crisis could transform the future of neutrality

The writer directs the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution

Rich, neutral, sheltered from aggressive or destitute neighbors by steep mountain ranges: Switzerland is the country some Germans wish they had. Relations between Bern and Berlin have tended to run smoothly. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is sending shivers of political disruption across the European continent, and they don’t stop at the Alps.

“Switzerland as a problem” ran on big title of a recent leader of a conservative German newspaper who is not otherwise prone to hyperbole. German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht wrote angry letters to her counterpart in Bern regarding more ammunition for the Gepard air defense guns that Berlin sent to Kyiv. The recent Russian missile attacks on targets across Ukraine add urgency to the call.

The 12,000 35mm cartridges in question were manufactured in Switzerland, which has a right of veto over their resale or donation. Bern has officially refuse two demands from Berlin to allow re-export to Kyiv – and indeed its hands are tied by its strict legal rules on arms exports.

The dispute has exacerbated the debate in Switzerland over the viability and value of its sacred tradition of neutrality at a time when war returned to Europe. In the past, this principle has been interpreted with a dose of pragmatism: it has not prevented Bern from sending soldiers on EU military missions, nor its armed forces from working with NATO. But he will not join any military alliance; this drawn the cap on a framework agreement with the EU in 2021 and he refused to allow NATO planes to fly weapons in Swiss airspace.

To be fair, the Swiss have unequivocally sentenced Kremlin aggression, support for Ukrainian refugees and mirroring almost all EU sanctions against Moscow, including asset freezes against hundreds of people linked to Vladimir Putin, many of whom have bank accounts in Switzerland ( estimate assess at least $100 billion). More importantly, Russian commodity trading has been curtailed — 80% of Russian oil was negotiated in Geneva before the war.

For the UDC, populist and isolationist, it is already anathema. Its manager, Christoph Blocher, has accused his country “for encouraging the death of young Russian soldiers”.

Others are looking for a much bigger change. Liberal party leader Thierry Burkart wanna Switzerland is considering a partnership with NATO; the leaders of the social democrats ask for more cooperation with the EU. Gerhard Pfister, leader of the Mitte party (Centre) has required that Swiss law should be changed to allow Germany to send ammunition to Ukraine – because, said, “we also defended ourselves in Kyiv”. In late October, an alarmed Swiss government attempted to stifle the argument with a 38-page article paean to the status quo.

Meanwhile, other neutral countries have also quietly reconsidered their relationship with NATO, especially given the decisions of Finland and Sweden to apply for membership after the invasion of Ukraine. Austria, like Switzerland, prefers to maintain its principles while being very flexible in practice. Yet an opening letter signed by more than 50 public intellectuals called this position “not only untenable but dangerous for our country”.

Irish Foreign and Defense Minister Simon Coveney called for a ‘fundamental overhaul’ of Dublin’s security posture – a government defense review found it ‘lacks a credible military capability to protect Ireland’. But he added that Ireland was unlikely to join NATO “anytime soon”.

Bern, Vienna and Dublin are far from the fighting in Ukraine. Nevertheless, they are struggling to increase their defense budgets (from less than 1% to more than 1% of GDP by the end of the decade). But will that be enough? All three are deeply embedded in global trade and financial networks and susceptible to economic coercion.

Moscow is following these internal debates closely. In May, a spokesman for the Russian Embassy in Bern said the Kremlin “could not ignore” a Swiss renunciation of neutrality. Last week, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova called the discussion in Ireland “illogical. . . and not constructive. She added, grimly: “As historical experience shows, the loss of one’s sovereign rights is no good.”

His argument is most aptly highlighted by Putin’s current attempts to erase Ukraine’s independent nation status. Neutral states in Europe might wonder if sovereignty is not better protected by an alliance.

Christi C. Elwood