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Andreas Wenger is Professor of Swiss and International Security Policy and Direc

Andreas Wenger is Professor of Swiss and International Security Policy and Director of the Center for Security Studies at ETH Zurich. (Photograph: ETH Zurich)

The war in Ukraine poses some major challenges to Swiss security policy. Andreas Wenger, Director of the Center for Security Studies (CSS) at ETH Zurich, explains why we will need to broaden our understanding of defence in the future - and why international cooperation is becoming increasingly important.

Professor Wenger, the war in Ukraine has been raging for more than two months now. What’s your assessment of the situation?

Andreas Wenger: Over the past two weeks, negotiations between Russia and Ukraine have faded into the background, and we-ve seen growing signs that the war will turn into a protracted conflict. The brokering of a negotiated ceasefire is now just as unlikely as a broader political settlement.

So what will happen next?

Both sides are planning for a phase of military confrontation that will extend beyond the current Russian offensives in eastern and southern Ukraine. Putin’s generals are threatening to break up Ukraine into an array of statelets. At the same time, Ukraine is doing everything it can to prevent the creation of a Russian-controlled land bridge between eastern Ukraine and Crimea.

Is Ukraine likely to succeed?

That depends on how much military support it receives and what objectives guide the decisions of the 40 governments who have promised to supply Ukraine with heavy weapons. Is their goal to prevent Ukraine from being defeated or to enable it to achieve victory? The answer to that question is still unclear.

Since the war began, we-ve seen a growing chorus of voices refer to it as a turning point. Does that apply to Swiss security policy, too?

Switzerland is one of many countries that will need to address some fundamental questions. But first, we need to get out of this reactive crisis mode and start looking beyond day-to-day events. I know that sounds like a fairly modest goal, but it-s actually easier said than done in the kind of highly dynamic, morally charged situation we-re currently in.

Why-s that?

Employing scenario thinking, developing an overall strategy and reconciling conflicting goals are enduring challenges for the kind of decentralised political system we have in Switzerland. Right now, the Federal Council, administration, parliament and political parties need to concentrate their efforts on preparing an in-depth analysis of how the war will affect the global and European environment for Switzerland over the medium term.

What should Switzerland be bracing for?

Just like its neighbours, it needs to be prepared for a more confrontational European security order. The war has also demonstrated the extent to which European security still depends on the continuing role of the US in NATO. In future, the alliance will focus even more of its efforts on deterring Russia and defending its eastern flank.

Recently, the head of the Swiss Armed Forces warned that the military would be unable to defend Switzerland for any kind of protracted period. How did we reach this point?

Over the past 20 years, our ability to repel an armed incursion has been reduced to a minimum. Countries right across Europe, including Switzerland, responded to the end of the Cold War by slashing military budgets and manpower. Then came the terror attacks of September 11 and the international, US-led military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Those events steadily shifted the focus of Swiss security policy towards homeland security. And that’s why the Swiss Armed Forces are currently geared towards auxiliary missions aimed at supporting civilian authorities.

Will Switzerland need to return to a policy of spending more money on its armed forces?

The past few weeks have shown us that the political will to increase defence budgets is growing, both in Switzerland and in other countries. In the case of the Swiss Parliament, this new trend towards boosting military funding by modest amounts actually dates back to the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014.

How should the military use these additional funds?

The fact we-re making more money available to the military means it-s now essential for policymakers to provide a clearer definition of where the Swiss Armed Forces- capabilities should be heading in the long term. In essence, we-re talking about re-establishing defence policy as part of the Swiss security strategy. Policymakers need to develop a new understanding of what defence means in today’s world.

What kind of threats should Switzerland prepare for in the future?

The conventional scenario of tanks penetrating Switzerland’s border remains highly unlikely, even after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. However, the state’s ability to enact its policies could still be challenged by terrorist groups and political disinformation, as well as political and economic blackmail. Attacks could also be carried out over long distances, either with missiles, for example, or in cyberspace.

But it-s unlikely that Switzerland would be the only country affected by those kinds of threats.

Right, because it is landlocked. Back in 1973, the Swiss Security Policy Report stated that Switzerland would not be the sole target of an adversary in most conflict situations. That was a realistic assessment during the Cold War, and it-s even more relevant to the expanded threat landscape of the 21st century.

So what does that mean for Swiss security policy?

First, it means that international security and defence cooperation is now becoming even more important. But let-s not forget that Switzerland has already greatly expanded its international engagement in many areas over the past 30 years, from peacebuilding to European cooperation in the police, judiciary and customs areas. Second, the escalation of geopolitical tensions between nuclear powers is increasing the demand for risk-reduction measures. This is an area where Switzerland can make a useful contribution through its engagement and experience in good offices and dialogue facilitation, as well as in the field of arms control.

How important to Swiss security is international cooperation between armed forces?

As technologies evolve and budgets dwindle, closer defence cooperation is becoming more and more important for all Europe’s armed forces, including Switzerland-s. The Swiss Armed Forces have been cooperating with other European militaries for many years, with the closest ties of all being forged with Switzerland’s neighbouring countries. Switzerland has also spent over 25 years collaborating with NATO to promote and practise interoperability, which is the ability to conduct joint, coordinated military operations.

How about collaboration with the EU?

Over the past decades, the European Union’s Common Security and Defence Policy has advanced only slowly, so Switzerland’s defence cooperation with the EU is more recent and much less established.

Politicians and opinion leaders are calling on Switzerland to establish closer ties either with NATO or with the EU. Which is more important?

While NATO remains an essential component of Europe’s defence strategy, the EU is a partner for research and weapons, as well as in other security-related areas such as the economy and energy. But when it comes to these various vehicles for cooperation between armed forces, we have to be careful not to play them off against each other on a political level.

You-ll have to explain that.

Right now, we-re seeing a rapid intensification of cooperation between NATO and the EU. All European nations are now guided by the same principles and standards of technology and capability development. Consequently, the bilateral and multilateral cooperation activities undertaken by the Swiss Armed Forces with these countries are increasingly complementary. That increases our leeway for pragmatic defence cooperation on an intergovernmental level.

Is closer defence cooperation compatible with Switzerland’s policy of neutrality?

The law of neutrality imposes certain limits on cooperation in the military arena; for example, it does not allow Switzerland to join alliances, undertake binding commitments in peacetime, or provide direct support to warring countries. In principle, however, neutrality does not stand in the way of pragmatic defence cooperation. That’s only the case, however, if all the political forces in Switzerland are willing to exploit the leeway our neutrality policy offers to maintain the Swiss Armed Forces- ability to cooperate with international partners.

Doesn-t the Swiss militia concept limit the possibilities of international cooperation in practical terms?

Yes, and that’s something that is often overlooked. The service and training model of Switzerland’s militia system puts certain constraints on real-world military cooperation, especially when it comes to participation in international exercises.

Should Switzerland fundamentally rethink its policy of neutrality?

Switzerland has always shown flexibility in adapting its neutrality to changing conditions. Historically, however, such modifications have been made only once the fog of war has begun to lift and the outline of the new security order has become clearer. In past wars - and indeed in the current Ukraine war - political debate has focused on the conflicting goals associated with the law of neutrality, such as the adoption of sanctions, consent for military overflights and the transit of military goods, and arms exports. This is a desirable feature of democracy.

It sounds like the core principle of neutrality will withstand this crisis as well.

Switzerland will maintain its neutrality, if only because it is such an integral part of its political identity. It makes sense for Switzerland to do this as a country that is outside both NATO and the EU, especially in light of the increasing rivalry between the world’s major powers. But that doesn-t mean that we shouldn-t be fundamentally rethinking what neutrality means.

Where do you see the biggest need for action?

The first question is whether we need to modify any of the guidelines on neutrality. I would expect Switzerland to continue along the path of engaged neutrality it embarked upon in 1993. This permits sanctions to be adopted as a reaction to a breach of international law - even outside the UN - if the sanctions have a regulatory function that serves peace. Ultimately, however, defining what this means in each specific case will continue to require a political balancing of interests.

Anything else?

We should determine the extent to which the law of neutrality, which dates back to 1907, is still relevant today. In military terms, neutrality provides only limited protection against cyber-attacks and advanced stand-off weapons, such as cruise missiles. And in political terms, the neutral party has no obligation to practise ideological or economic neutrality, even though it is precisely in these areas that conflicts are increasingly playing out. This makes it more relevant than ever to argue that, in future, neutrality can be only one means among many in Switzerland’s foreign and security policy.


Andreas Wenger is Professor of Swiss and International Security Policy and Director of the Center for Security Studies at ETH Zurich.

Christoph Elhardt

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