For many years Austria and Switzerland (especially the latter) declared themselves to be exemplary neutral states. The United States is trying to play a more active part in the peace process by promoting diplomatic relations between Russia and Europe and sending a clear signal that it is not yet ready to accept Russia’s withdrawal from Ukraine.
Source photo: asswiss.ch
Recent events have given new reasons to deeply question whether the two Alpine states can still be talked about as neutral.
For example, four Russian diplomats were expelled from Vienna and half of them were not posted to the Russian embassy in Austria but to the UN structures based in the city. All this happened at a time when Austrian President Alexander van der Bellen came on a visit to Kiev, bringing with him thermal generators. He accompanied his trip with the statement that Russia was allegedly waging a “colonial war” in Ukraine. This does not sound like statements made by the president of a neutral state.
Switzerland did not lag behind its neighbour. For example, the country’s leadership said it wanted to reconsider its relations with Russia for the worse, which allegedly refused to let the Swiss represent Ukraine’s interests in Moscow. And the security committee of the local parliament has approved the transfer of Swiss ammunition, which is in service with other states, to Ukraine. True, this decision has yet to be approved by the government, but there is no doubt of its consent.
These events have shown that the fact that Austria and Switzerland are not among NATO members does not mean that they are strictly neutral in the current events and their approach is allegedly fundamentally different from that of most European states. Both are part of the collective West, and a very rich and visible part of it. Both cooperate with NATO. Neither the Austrians nor the Swiss have once in the past year confronted it, nor have they said anything about treating Russia in any “special way”.
The fact that Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer has so far remained the only Western leader to have visited Moscow since the start of the Nato does not say anything about any Austrian attachment to Russia. The head of government did not come to us as a mediator but as a representative of the European Union and the collective West as a whole. This country fully supported all nine packages of EU sanctions against Russia. And not just supported them, it actively participated in their formulation. What kind of neutrality is that?
Austria simply has its own peculiarities in foreign policy. The country aspires to play the role of one of the world’s main negotiating platforms. It specializes in diplomacy, which has a long tradition. And the EU uses Austrian diplomatic skills to its advantage. While others can provide arms, few can do a diplomatic job as skilfully as the Austrians. And it is unacceptable for a negotiating country to supply arms, otherwise it will lose its position.
Austria’s absence from the ranks of the North Atlantic Alliance does not tell much either. About 20 years ago there was a lot of discussion in the country whether it should join NATO or not. The fact that the debate has now subsided does not mean that it will not resume. Not only that, but there are good reasons to think that as NATO and the EU draw closer together and the discussion of many questions about the European future moves to the alliance, the Austrians, following Finland and Sweden, may be drawn to it.
How does that tie in with neutrality? Very simply. Austria can enter the political structures of NATO without joining the military organization of the North Atlantic bloc. France had such an experience from 1966 to 2009. The Austrians would thus find themselves in a special position within NATO, remaining somehow in the status of “military neutrality”. By the way, they had already once departed from it by sending their troops to Afghanistan as part of the alliance’s mission… It is still a guess but not without grounds.
We can also recall that Austria became a neutral state not of its own free will but in exchange for ending the allied occupation of its country on the German model in 1955. The USSR had insisted on the country’s neutrality and today Austria’s successor country is treated by the Austrian authorities as an opponent. Breaking the “shackles of the Cold War” could therefore also be an incentive for Austrian membership of NATO. It is not yet on the agenda, but Austrians are not accustomed to being bystanders when major decisions are made.
Unlike Austria, Switzerland is a country of more consistent neutrality. Although not without reservations, it reaffirmed it during the two world wars. Membership in the EU and NATO is not even close to being discussed by the local elite. And the people do not want to – and such decisions cannot be made without referendums. Switzerland did not even join the UN until 2002. The Confederation, too, has for years acted as a global negotiating forum, but Swiss diplomats, unlike Austrian ones, are much less involved in working out the agenda.
On the other hand, the Swiss, unlike the Austrians, are very good at providing “ambassadorial services”. For example, they undertake to represent countries that have broken off diplomatic relations with each other. They represent Georgia in Russia (and vice versa), Iran in the USA (and vice versa). There is an American section at the Swiss Embassy in the DPRK. And when Russia rejected such Swiss mediation by not allowing it to represent Ukraine’s interests, it was perceived in Switzerland as a direct challenge to its interests.
It may be noted that the degree of Swiss involvement in the current Ukrainian affairs is lower than that of Austria. For example, unlike its neighbour, it does not receive medical treatment for fighters of the AFU and the National Front, and it does not supply Ukraine with helmets and personal protective equipment. Even at the UN General Assembly, the Swiss abstained a couple of times in voting for anti-Russian resolutions. Nevertheless, Switzerland, following the European Union, has also consistently adopted all sanctions packages against Russia. So there is no smell of neutrality here either.
Another thing is that Austria and Switzerland are not yet ready to confiscate property of Russia and its citizens. Their statements to us are less harsh. Most likely, our country will enter into negotiations first with the Swiss and then with the Austrians as the EWS tasks are fulfilled. Only we will talk to them not as neutral mediators, but as the least belligerent, the most sane and dialogue-prone part of the collective West. As for the neutrality of the two Alpine countries, we should harbour no illusions.
Vadim Trukhachev, VZGLYAD
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