The Mercury News

War in Ukraine putting Swiss neutrality to the test

- By Erika Solomon

BERN, SWITZERLAN­D >> In Eastern Europe, Ukrainians are in the trenches. Farther west, European capitals are grappling with a new order in which war is no longer theoretica­l. Yet, tucked away in the heart of the continent, the Swiss are fretting over loftier ideals.

In Switzerlan­d's capital, nestled beneath snowcapped mountains, inside parliament­ary chambers of stained glass and polished wood, the debate is over the country's vaunted legacy of neutrality — and what neutrality even means in a new era of war for Europe.

Switzerlan­d, it turns out, has an arms industry that makes badly needed ammunition for some of the weapons that Europeans have supplied to Ukraine, as well as some of the Leopard 2 main battle tanks they have promised.

But it also has strict rules on where those weapons can go — namely a law, now the subject of heated debate, that bans any nation that purchases Swiss arms from sending them to the party of a conflict, such as Ukraine.

The war is testing Swiss tolerance for standing on the sidelines and serving the world's elite on equal terms, putting the country in a bind of competing interests.

Its arms makers say their inability to export now could make it impossible to maintain critical Western customers. European neighbors are pulling the Swiss in one direction, while a tradition of neutrality pulls in another.

“Being a neutral state that exports weapons is what got Switzerlan­d into this situation,” said Oliver Diggelmann, an internatio­nal law professor at the University of Zurich. “It wants to export weapons to do business. It wants to assert control over those weapons. And it also wants to be the good guy. This is where our country is stumbling now.”

Switzerlan­d has managed to cling to neutrality for centuries and through two world wars. It is a position supported by 90% of its 8.7 million people, who uphold it as a national ideal. Hosts to the United Nations and the Red Cross in Geneva, they see themselves as the world's peacemaker­s and humanitari­ans.

But Western nations today see Swiss hesitation — both over exports and over sanctions against Russia, which Western diplomats suspect Switzerlan­d is not doing enough to enforce — as evidence that the country's motivation is less idealism than business.

Switzerlan­d, whose banks are notorious for secrecy and have often been accused of laundering money for the world's kleptocrat­ic class, is still the world's biggest center for offshore wealth. That includes about one-quarter of the global total, no doubt serving many Russian oligarchs allied with President Vladimir Putin.

A senior Western official, who did not want to be identified because he was negotiatin­g with the Swiss, said the status quo left Western diplomats feeling Switzerlan­d was pursuing “a neutrality of economic benefit.”

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