Putin's War in Ukraine is Backfiring in Historic Way

Switzerland may buck centuries' worth of military neutrality and aid Ukraine in its long and continuous war against Russia.

Politicians from multiple Swiss parties are pondering arming Kyiv while simultaneously concluding a ban on exports of Swiss weapons in war zones, Reuters reported on Tuesday. It would likely add increased resistance to Russia's long-term strategies.

"We want to be neutral, but we are part of the Western world," Thierry Burkart, leader of the center-right FDP party, told Reuters.

He has reportedly submitted a motion to the Swiss government to allow arms re-exports to countries with similar democratic values to Switzerland—which also would represent a policy shift, as buyers of Swiss arms are currently legally prohibited from re-exporting them.

While it will not send weapons directly to war combatants, the country does operate a separate embargo on arms sales to Ukraine and Russia.

Switzerland possesses the world's oldest policy towards neutrality, originating via the Treaty of Paris in 1815. It has not participated in a foreign war since the treaty was established.

Putin's war backfiring spectacularly
President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting with members of the Russian government via teleconference in Moscow on March 10, 2022. Russia may have to deal with an additional country's direct involvement in its war against Ukraine, as now Switzerland is reportedly mulling options to arm Ukraine and stray away from its long-held neutrality. Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik/Grtty

Burkart said his country shouldn't have to veto to stop others from aiding Ukraine, which he said is in turn a show of support for Russia and "not a neutral position."

"Other countries want to support Ukraine and do something for the security and stability of Europe...They cannot understand why Switzerland has to say no," Burkart added.

Public sentiment is in his favor. A new poll released Sunday by pollster Sotomo showed that 55 percent of Swiss respondents favor re-exports to Ukraine.

"If we had asked this question before the war...the response would have probably been less than 25 percent," Lukas Golder, co-director of pollsters GFS-Bern, told Reuters. "Talking about changing neutrality was a taboo in the past."

But not everyone agrees.

Marionna Schlatter, a Green Party parliamentary member, referred to a "slippery slope" of ending all restrictions.

The issue has also reportedly divided the right-wing Swiss People's Party (SVP), which is the lower house's largest party and includes members most prone to defend neutrality in such circumstances.

"Allowing arms shipments to a country involved in an armed conflict is...destroying the basis of peace and prosperity in our country," said the SVP's David Zuberbueler.

Russia-Ukraine War Has Been a Global 'Game Changer'

On February 3, the Swiss Federal Council released its 2022 Foreign Policy Report—stating in part that "the war in Ukraine plunged Europe into a new era of instability and deeply influenced Swiss foreign policy."

"Switzerland repeatedly condemned the Russian aggression," the report reads. "The Federal Council supported EU [European Union] sanctions, showing solidarity with the Ukrainian people and their suffering. Basing itself on its permanent neutrality, Switzerland advocated unreservedly for respect for international law and the UN [United Nations] Charter."

No other mention of neutrality in any context was mentioned in said report.

When asked about the official position of the Swiss government, the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs referred Newsweek to the country's official stance regarding neutrality as part of a document published September 9, 2022.

It states that the country's support of EU sanctions "does not alter its neutrality in any way" and that it "does not favor any warring party militarily."

"Russia's gross violation of the fundamental norms of international law was the yardstick for these deliberations," the document reads in part. "The Federal Council concluded that Switzerland's credibility as a neutral state will not be compromised.

"Switzerland had been working actively both at the bilateral and multilateral level to help prevent the conflict and been advocating for the use of the instruments of diplomacy."

There is one caveat: neutrality is "not set in stone" and could be adapted based on foreign, security or economic policies.

"It's not surprising. [Bucking neutrality has] been in the works for some time," Sergey Radchenko, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), told Newsweek. "This war has been a game changer for countries that normally would have remained at a distance and trying to maintain neutrality.

"Of course, it began really with Finland and Sweden seeking membership in NATO, taking positions that are very far from neutrality in this conflict, backing Ukraine very strongly."

Radchenko pointed out that Switzerland's neutrality was on display during World War II. The League of Nations was established there; many UN organizations were based there during the Cold War.

It was a country where Soviets and Americans would come to negotiate arms treaties because of a perception that while Switzerland was a part of the West, it was a location that provided enough space to both sides.

"I think it's partly because of the pressure," he said. "Well, not just the pressure. I mean, there's the understanding across Europe that Russia is waging a brutal, unjust war, and that neutrality in this kind of situation is a moral hazard."

Dr. Stephen Biddle, an adjunct senior fellow for defense policy on the Council on Foreign Relations and professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University, told Newsweek that Putin's invasion of an "innocent neighbor" has changed many European perceptions of threat and safety.

A Historic Realignment

"Germany is about to send German tanks into Ukraine for the first time since World War II, after all," Biddle said. "Finland and Sweden are trying to join NATO. A historic realignment of Swiss security policy isn't the first such change the Ukraine war has wrought."

Mikhail Troitskiy, professor of practice at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told Newsweek that the allowing re-exports of Swiss-manufactured weapons would not signal an end to Swiss neutrality; rather, it would just be Switzerland exercising its sovereign right to decide who can get its weapons and who cannot.

"The real stakes here likely have to do with Switzerland's relations with Russia," Troitskiy said. "Moscow would be irritated if not outraged if Bern decides to release Swiss-made weapons to Ukraine. It seems, however, that Russia's dependence on Switzerland for hosting family members and financial capital of the Russian ruling elite is currently higher than Switzerland's dependence on Russia."

He added: "So if Bern puts parochial interests aside, it should be able to change its stance on re-exports of its weapons. In addition, Swiss weapon manufacturers would expand their revenue sources if Swiss arms exports regulations become more 'lax' in the wake of the war in Ukraine."

The aforementioned Swiss poll showing support for re-exported arms to Ukraine is indicative of the power of public opinion that can sway long-existing government positions and policies, Troitskiy said.