Switzerland’s decision not to join European Union sanctions against Russia has prompted mixed reactions among international experts. Are the Swiss opportunists or is it incompatible with their role as mediator in the conflict in Ukraine?
At least since the shooting down of a Malaysian Airline plane over Ukraine in mid-July, the 28 member states of the EU seem to stand united, deciding to extend economic sanctions against Russia.
Not so Switzerland. As a non-EU member, it is insisting on its traditional neutrality and its position as current head of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). Its policy towards Russia includes an arms embargo and measures to ensure that Switzerland is not used as a hub to bypass the EU sanctions.
Michael Brzoska, scientific director of the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at Hamburg University in Germany, says the Swiss position makes sense.
“From a purely technical point of view sanctions can be compatible with the neutral status. But in political terms it would be taking sides,” he says.
“Having said that, you could also argue that Switzerland could profit from its policy and that would also be sort of taking sides,” he hastens to add.
Criticism of the Swiss position has come not only from EU members but also from Russia.
Reports in Russian media said Switzerland was used to undermine the European sanctions, notably after Moscow abruptly closed access for EU food producers to the Russian market with its 140 million consumers.
The prominent Izvestia newspaper has hinted that Switzerland, which is not targeted by Moscow’s punitive measures, serves as a backdoor to circumvent the sanctions. However, readers are still waiting to see evidence for the alleged dealings.
It is a fact that Russian importers have shown a strong interest in Swiss dairy products and vegetable over the past few weeks. The trade volume before the EU sanctions was rather modest, it has to be said.
Alexandre Vautravers, professor for international relations at Geneva’s Webster University, sees no reason to make a case against Switzerland.
Money not cheese
For him, the real issue is not cheese or vegetables, but weapons, finances and primary materials. He adds that the EU is not really united on the issue of sanctions.
“France continues to sell its warships, Britain still exports a number of electronic goods and equipment for the Russian aviation industry, notably night sight devices. I'd also like to remind you that the most important armoured vehicle being developed for the Russian army is a product under Italian licence.”
Vautravers approves of the Swiss government’s position.
“Switzerland is a sovereign and neutral state. It has to be careful not to be drawn into the conflict,” he says.
He says there is no reason, at the moment, for Switzerland to join the sanctions on Russia – neither those imposed by the EU nor by the United States.
Vautravers believes both Washington and Brussels have primarily domestic policy reasons to take action. “It is to calm the American and European public.”
His opinion is disputed by Susan Stewart of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin.
She says the embargo is just one element to deal with the crisis in Ukraine, besides the EU support for Kiev and ongoing attempts for a negotiated settlement.
“The sanctions boost the EU position in negotiations. It shows that all member states share the position towards Russia. This is an important signal.”
Stewart adds that allegations of embargo violations by some EU member states have to be investigated carefully. And she acknowledges that the sale of French Mistral warships to Moscow is problematic but not really relevant.
“The sanctions are only valid for new projects,” Stewart explains.
She declines to comment directly on Switzerland’s policy on the EU embargo. However, she points out that non-EU member Norway has joined the sanction regime.
“The EU welcomes such a decision. The more states participate in the embargo, the stronger the signal towards Russia.”
Stewart doesn’t share the criticism of Switzerland’s neutral stance, which allegedly serves to give it economic benefits.
But it would be damaging to put short-term economic considerations ahead of long-term security policy concerns, she warns.
Moscow has once again demonstrated its dominant power in the post-Soviet era with the annexation of the Crimea peninsula from Ukraine in March this year, Stewart says.
“This does not bode well for Europe. Therefore, a political approach is crucial,” she explains.
Stewart has no doubt about the impact of the sanctions on Moscow.
“The Russian elite will understand what they mean for their financial assets and their ability to travel abroad. At the very least it will raise awareness in Russia of the consequences and costs,” she says.
Brzoska for his part warns of an escalation if the sanctions miss their target and punish the general Russian population instead of harming certain decision-makers.
He comes out in favour of the embargo against weapons and dual use goods but appeals for a differentiated approach.
“There is a risk of an escalation if sanctions are too harsh and they can be even counterproductive if they are perceived as an attack against the entire population of a country.”
He warns that some financial sanctions are going too far, prompting the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, to retaliate against the EU.
Brzoska doubts whether Brussels or Washington have succeeded in convincing the Russian population that their punitive policy is aimed solely at some decision-makers and their policies.
“At the moment Putin’s interpretation is still dominant in public that the sanctions are an attack on the whole country,” he says.
Two members of the Swiss embassy to Russia have reportedly taken part in a recent arms fair outside Moscow despite the Swiss embargo.
Swiss media also reported that some dual-use products by a Swiss technology company, Schleuniger, were also represented.
The foreign ministry declined to comment while the Schleuniger Group said it had no knowledge that its wire-processing machines were on display.
Earlier this month, the Swiss government extended its economic sanctions against Russia, banning dual-use goods besides exports of war materiel.
(Adapted from German by Urs Geiser)