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In move to sanction Russia, Switzerland breaks from long tradition

A sign showing support for Ukraine at the desk of Switzerland's delegation during an emergency session of the U.N. General Assembly in New York on Feb. 28. (Justin Lane/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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In a sharp break with its long-standing neutrality, Switzerland on Monday announced that it would join the European Union in imposing sanctions on Russia over its invasion of Ukraine, filling a key gap in Western efforts to curb the Kremlin following widespread criticism of the Swiss government.

The Swiss had for days held off on following the E.U. and the United States, citing the nation’s long-standing role as a neutral and diplomacy-focused country.

Swiss political isolationism dates back around two centuries. The 1815 Congress of Vienna signed a declaration formally recognizing Switzerland’s neutrality, saying it was “in the true interest of the whole of Europe.” Buffered by larger, mightier powers — France to the West, Germany to the North and Italy to the South — the small Alpine nation has been entrusted with special international functions, including acting as a mediator in conflicts.

Switzerland’s government now says it will immediately implement the measures already agreed on by the E.U. last Wednesday and Friday.

“We are in an extraordinary situation where extraordinary measures could be decided,” President Ignazio Cassis told reporters Monday. He said only history would tell if Switzerland would ever do the same again. Swiss neutrality remained intact, he insisted, but “of course we stand on the side of Western values.”

Switzerland will also close its airspace to flights from Russia and planes with Russian markings, and bar five oligarchs close to Russian President Vladimir Putin from entering the country. Authorities did not provide their names.

The nation will also impose sanctions on Putin and other officials in the Russian government.

“The attack of Russia against an independent European country — Ukraine — is an attack on sovereignty, freedom, democracy, the civil population and the institutions of a free country,” Cassis said.

E.U. and domestic pressure on the Swiss government had mounted for days. On Friday, an E.U. spokesman said the bloc expects Switzerland “to follow suit in standing up for defending the principles on which our communities and countries are based.”

Switzerland is not a member of the E.U., a bloc of 27 nations. Upon the 1945 founding of the United Nations, Switzerland ruled out membership, only joining the international body with a slim margin nationwide vote over five decades later in 2002. Switzerland didn’t join NATO, founded in 1949 — and instead has become part of NATO’s Partnership for Peace program, which allows it to build an “individual relationship” with NATO. The nation managed to keep its neutrality through both world wars, propped up by a system of armed neutrality.

Switzerland has mandatory military conscription for men. The armed forces focus on “assuring domestic law and order and defending the territory of the Swiss Confederation,” according to its website.

Even Monday’s sanctions constitute “a striking movement away from their neutrality,” Neal G. Jesse, a political scientist at Bowling Green State University, who studies small, neutral nations, told The Washington Post. “Normally if there was conflict, they wouldn’t even consider it. Nobody would even ask Switzerland, ‘Do you want to take a side on this?’ — because it’s security related.”

The country’s status in the geographical center of Europe but on its political sidelines has long allowed its banks to uphold ties to entities and individuals whose businesses would probably run into obstacles elsewhere.

The sanctions aimed at punishing Russia are “clearly security related,” Jesse said.

“This is highly unusual,” he said. “This is a development that shows that Europe is headed now for a new era. If Switzerland believes that defense of Europe is something they want to be a part of, we are really seeing a new era of international relations in Europe that we haven’t seen since 1815.”

The largely neutral Sweden has also agreed to send military aid to Ukraine, including antitank weapons and body armor, Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said Sunday.