SWISS NEUTRALITY AND ARMS EXPORTS TO UKRAINE: between tradition and solidarity

Simaioforidou Maria, 02/2023

Over the past year, many governments have faced difficult decisions due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Germany, for example, has broken a long-standing taboo in its foreign and defense policy by offering military support to Ukraine, while Finland and Sweden have requested NATO membership.

Being located in the heart of Europe and surrounded by EU member states, Switzerland has no doubt about the identity of the aggressor and victim in the Ukraine conflict. Switzerland’s response to Russia’s aggression has been clear-cut, with the country aligning itself with EU sanctions against Russia on February 28th and consistently voting against Russia in the UN General Assembly. However, the conflict has tested the country’s traditional neutrality, which has long been a cornerstone of its foreign policy.
The concept of Swiss neutrality, which has been held for centuries, may be difficult for outsiders to fully comprehend. At the Congress of Vienna in 1815, Switzerland was granted “eternal neutrality” which is also legally upheld by the Hague Convention of 1907. This was a pragmatic and geopolitical decision that was supported because the country was viewed as a harmless buffer between the major powers of Europe, with France on one side and Austria and Prussia on the other. By granting Switzerland neutrality, its safety was preserved while neighboring countries engaged in conflicts and wars. This decision was seen to maintain stability in the region and protect Switzerland from being drawn into conflicts between its more powerful neighbors.

As a result, Switzerland has adhered to its tradition of neutrality by refraining from sending weapons to any combatants involved in a conflict, either directly or indirectly while it also maintains an embargo on arms sales to both Ukraine and Russia. Therefore, when Germany asked Switzerland to allow the export of Swiss-manufactured ammunition for tanks destined for Kyiv, the Swiss government refused. Additionally, the government recently declined a Spanish request to transfer two Swiss-made anti-aircraft guns from Madrid’s arsenal to Kyiv. Similarly, Bern had previously denied requests from Denmark and Germany to supply Swiss-made anti-aircraft ammunition to the Ukrainian military.

There are two conflicting viewpoints in the debate about Switzerland’s neutrality. One view is based on customary law and argues that Switzerland should treat all parties equally, while the other view which holds that the United Nations Charter should be considered and that the aggressor and the victim should not be treated equally. However, this issue is controversial, and the debate on re-export permits has further fueled the controversy.

According to a recent poll published by Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 55% of the Swiss population would support the delivery of weapons purchased from Switzerland by a third party. The public and political shift in Switzerland towards supporting Ukraine has put pressure on the government to end a ban on exports of Swiss weapons to war zones, which would break with centuries of tradition as a neutral state. However, there is a legal restriction preventing buyers of Swiss arms from re-exporting them, and some argue that this restriction is now negatively impacting the country’s large weapons industry.

Lawmakers in Switzerland are reconsidering their country’s neutrality in light of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, although any potential changes may come too late to aid Kyiv as it prepares for a potential Russian offensive in the spring. While Germany and other allies have pledged to provide military support to Ukraine, Swiss politicians have been exploring ways to work around their country’s restrictions on re-exporting weapons. The urgency of the situation has spurred them to consider multiple ideas. However, any adjustment to it must be decided by the Swiss in accordance with relevant regulations.

Ultimately, the choice is between upholding traditional neutrality or showing solidarity with Ukraine. Whichever decision is made, it will be a defining moment for Switzerland’s future position.