Switzerland plans further cooperation with NATO in the context of the Russian war in Ukraine

Flirt ja, heiraten nein(“Flirting yes, marrying no!”)

This was recently said by the president of one of the largest Swiss soldiers’ associations, Stefan Holenstein, about Switzerland’s relations with NATO. It may sound frivolous, but Holenstein was serious: his argument, motivated by Russia‘s war in Ukraine, was that Switzerland should work more closely with NATO but stop short of membership.

This is a revolutionary suggestion in a country at the heart of Europe that is not a member of NATO or the European Union, only joined the United Nations in 2002 and, apart from sending a few officers, has never participated in full military exercises with surrounding NATO countries, believing that the strict policy of military neutrality enshrined in the Swiss constitution prohibits it. Due to the war in Ukraine, Holenstein wants Switzerland to finally be part of and start to take some responsibility for Europe’s security and military architecture.

Flirt ja, heiraten nein(“Flirting yes, marrying no!”)

This was recently said by the president of one of the largest Swiss soldiers’ associations, Stefan Holenstein, about Switzerland’s relations with NATO. It may sound frivolous, but Holenstein was serious: his argument, motivated by Russia’s war in Ukraine, was that Switzerland should work more closely with NATO but stop short of membership.

This is a revolutionary suggestion in a country at the heart of Europe that is not a member of NATO or the European Union, only joined the United Nations in 2002 and, apart from sending a few officers, has never participated in full military exercises with surrounding NATO countries, believing that the strict policy of military neutrality enshrined in the Swiss constitution prohibits it. Due to the war in Ukraine, Holenstein wants Switzerland to finally be part of and start to take some responsibility for Europe’s security and military architecture.

Suddenly, Swiss politics and media seized on the issue of neutrality. Last week, Damien Cottier, a liberal member of the Swiss parliament, said the Swiss had thought for too long that being surrounded by NATO countries automatically meant they would also be protected. This, he writes in The weather, is “a dangerous chimera. Our country cannot be a stowaway when it comes to European security.

The world has already seen Finland and Sweden – two EU countries which, like Switzerland, have a long tradition of military neutrality – begin to seriously consider applying for NATO, which could happen any day. to the other. A notable change is also taking place in Denmark, a NATO ally whose government now hopes to reverse the country’s current policy of withdrawing from European Union defense plans in a referendum in June.

These Nordic countries have suddenly concluded that “two life insurances are better than one”, said a security expert on condition of anonymity. Switzerland is geographically distant from Russia and much less exposed than the Nordic countries. But it too feels the need to anchor itself more firmly in the Western system of mutual security guarantees.

This is yet another example of how strategic alignments in Europe are shifting due to Russian aggression. It seems that the military neutrality inherited from 20th century Europe is fast becoming a thing of the past.

NATO membership remains deeply unpopular among the Swiss; only 33 percent favor it. But public support for closer cooperation with the Atlantic Alliance has grown in recent weeks, and some Swiss want to get as close as their country’s constitution allows. “The war in Ukraine is a shock wave for us,” said Jean-Marc Rickli, head of global and emerging risks at the Geneva Center for Security Policy, who wrote his doctoral thesis on European neutral states after the cold War.

Switzerland will not go as far as Sweden and Finland seem to want to go and join NATO, not only because neutrality is in the Swiss Constitution, but also because neutrality is an essential part of self-perception of Switzerland, preventing it from joining a military alliance with a mutual defense clause.

In countries like France and Germany, language, religion and a common history have shaped national identity. But Switzerland has four national languages, several religions and a highly decentralized governance structure. (Its townships have different holidays, law enforcement, health policies, and public education.) There, national identity is shaped by federalism, neutrality, and direct democracy. “In other words,” Rickli said, “the Swiss identity is a political identity. Joining an international organization would destroy that.

This is why the discussion in Switzerland on pursuing a closer relationship with NATO is difficult and delicate. Several Swiss security experts declined to speak publicly, citing political pressure.

The country’s largest party, the far-right nationalist UDC, has already made it clear that any flexibility on the principle of neutrality undermines national sovereignty. For the SVP, Switzerland crossed that line when it decided to join other Western countries in sanctioning Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.

Several centre-left and centre-right politicians have defended the sanctions, however, arguing that because Russia violated international law – which was partly drafted in Geneva – Switzerland should condemn it. Some also said that Switzerland could and should do a lot more with NATO than it is currently doing.

Switzerland joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace, a program for non-members, in 1996 after the end of the Cold War. The country has provided training and even helicopters for international peacekeeping missions, such as the NATO-led one in Kosovo. It also exchanges air traffic data with NATO allies to prevent terrorist attacks from the air and participates in a NATO cyber defense center in Estonia. But that’s about all. “So far, the interoperability [with NATO forces] at such a tactical level, it was as far as Switzerland could go,” said Rickli. “But making entire units interoperable with NATO troops has never been on the agenda. Now this is suddenly under discussion.

This discussion was launched by the leader of the center-right liberals, Thierry Burkart, in a column published in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung April 7. He argued that it was time for “das Ende der Igel-Switzerland“-“the end of hedgehog Switzerland”, which curls into a ball and erects sharp spines when attacked militarily but does nothing when other countries are attacked. According to Burkart, the invasion of Ukraine by Russia proves that Swiss security policy is “at an impasse”. After all, Russia has classified the entire West as an enemy; Switzerland has been the target of Russian cyberattacks, as have non-neutral European countries; and Russian rockets can easily hit Switzerland.

The Swiss defense budget – currently just under 1% of the country’s GDP – will be increased, as elsewhere in Europe. Bern has also just ordered US-made F-35 fighter jets. Burkart wants to align more purchases with NATO equipment so that Switzerland can more easily conduct military exercises with NATO allies and even come to the aid of neighboring countries. It is this operational incompatibility that Burkart wants to eliminate. In the Alpine region, as one diplomat put it Foreign Police“no vacuum should be created.”

In mid-April, a comprehensive poll showed a majority in Switzerland backing Burkart’s plan for NATO rapprochement, including joint military exercises: 56% of Swiss want to cooperate more closely with NATO in various ways, just as Sweden and Finland have done. over the past decades.

“Relations between Switzerland and NATO have oscillated between convergence and divergence” over the past decades, said Henrik Larsen, senior researcher at the Center for Security Studies at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. In a research paper, he wrote that in a safe and peaceful world, especially in the 1990s, the two tend to come together. When the world gets uglier, however, Switzerland and NATO have found less ground for cooperation, such as when NATO refocused on collective defense after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Today, as NATO strengthens territorial defenses on its eastern flank, Switzerland has little to offer and the divergence widens.

In the past, when the Swiss thought of their security, they thought of the security of their own small country. Today, they increasingly see it in a wider European context. Now, because the war in Ukraine could spread in all directions, Holenstein said, “they finally realize that security is the foundation of everything we hold dear: our freedom, our democracy, the rule of law and military neutrality.

“A brutal war of aggression, in the middle of Europe, strikes us all without distinction,” he added. “Switzerland must therefore arm itself for the future.”

So far, these are just talk in political, diplomatic and military circles. The question of whether Switzerland will actually start to cooperate with NATO in an operational way will probably be decided by referendum. If approved, the process could take two years.

Nevertheless, for this discussion to take place is groundbreaking by Swiss standards. If even the devoutly neutral Swiss are waking up and moving closer to the Western camp, it means the world is really changing.