Special Report-Switzerland Contemplates Closer NATO Ties Amid the War in Ukraine

Switzerland’s historical status of staying neutral during international conflict is in question after the country’s defense ministry hinted at closer ties with the Western Powers in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The ministry said it was drawing up a report on security options, including joint military exercises with the NATO and backfilling munitions.

Swiss Defense Minister Amherd visited Washington last week where she said Switzerland should work more closely with NATO but not join it.

The Swiss government considers neutrality, which kept Switzerland out of both world wars, not as an objective in itself but was intended to increase the country’s security.

Other options include high level meetings between Swiss and NATO politicians and commanders.

Even though the country doesn’t seem intent on joining the NATO, supporters of neutrality say moving so much closer to the military alliance would mark a departure from the tradition of not taking sides, which helped Switzerland prosper in peace and achieved a role of intermediary, including during the Cold War period.

The defense ministry dismisses the idea of full membership to NATO at the time being, though it has been discussed.

The ministry report is due to be completed by the end of September and then it will go to the Swiss cabinet for consideration. It will be followed by a parliament 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.

Switzerland has not fought in any 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.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has reopened the debate of neutrality in the country. The government has imposed some sanctions on Russia but allowed the re-export of Swiss made ammunition to Ukraine.

The defense ministry said there is a lot of uneasiness that Switzerland can’t do more to help Ukraine. Backfilling, where Switzerland supplies munitions to other countries to replace those sent to Ukraine, is another potential measure that could increase Swiss contribution. However, the government thinks direct supply is a step too far.

Swiss President Cassis dismissed arms deliveries to third countries in support of Ukraine, but he also underlined that Swiss neutrality is not a dogma and not responding with sanctions would play into the hands of the aggressor.

The country has already some ties with the NATO and last year it decided to purchase Lockheed Martin F-35A stealth fighters, which are used by some NATO members.

Russian embassy in Bern said Switzerland’s intention to move closer to NATO would amount to a radical change in policy and have consequences, while not providing any details.

Both the Swiss military and the public supports increased ties with the NATO. A recent poll found that 56% of the public supports increased NATO ties, up from 37% in recent years. Support for joining the military alliance remains a minority view.

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