May 18, 2022 will go down in history textbooks as the day when Sweden and Finland officially abandoned their neutrality after submitting their official requests to join NATO. After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Helsinki and Stockholm understood that constitutional neutrality cannot shield their countries in the current context.
A quick dictionary definition describes neutrality as “the political and judicial situation of a state that does not take part in conflicts between other states, does not provide support to belligerents, while in times of peace avoids entering military alliances and agreements”.
The decision taken by Sweden and Finland was a watershed moment for Nordic and Baltic countries as well as for NATO, which thus consolidates its presence on the Baltic Sea and secures a continuous presence on its eastern flank, from the far north of Europe all the way to the Black Sea. Finland and Sweden are not the only countries that have reexamined their neutrality in the wake of Russia’s acts of aggression. Ukraine too was forced to renounce this status as early as 2014, when Russia first attacked this country. Switzerland, the epitome of neutrality in Europe, is considering ways of collaborating with states involved in the conflict, and the list goes on.
What everyone wonders right now is if the neutrality status can still be considered a naïve strand of pacifism or if it has become a strategy that many states are now reconsidering.
From Switzerland’s retooling of neutrality to help Ukraine to the “limited” neutrality of certain NATO states that have showed goodwill to Russia
Just four days after Russia invaded Ukraine last year, Switzerland, a country whose very name is virtually synonymous with neutrality, renounced its absolute non-interference policy in order to align itself to the regime of Western sanctions against Moscow. Just like that, Berne broke with a very old tradition that had turned the country into a Wonderland for Vladimir Putin’s play buddies, who were happy to keep their illicitly obtained money in Swiss banks. To their surprise, Switzerland has closed the gates and frozen the assets of Russian oligarchs. The Federal government has shut down Swiss airspace to Russian airlines and has cancelled the preferential visa regulations benefitting Russian citizens. In the face of Putin’s shameful war in Ukraine, what Switzerland did was to show it has a moral compass, reasserting its commitment towards upholding democratic values. And many Swiss who are challenging the concept of neutrality to a greater extent were quick to notice that. According to a survey conducted in March, 55% of Swiss citizens agree that Swiss weapons, including anti-air missiles, should be re-exported to Ukraine.
The Parliament in Berne is already taking steps to pass the appropriate legislation allowing Switzerland to provide military aid to Ukraine. Under the existing Swiss law, no weapon manufactured in Switzerland can be delivered to countries at war, while any re-exports of these weapons require the specific approval of the government. Hence the pressure from France, Germany and the Netherlands, which called on Berne to send Swiss-made ammunition to Ukraine. The issue is still being debated, the Swiss government finding itself in a quandary, one the one hand facing limitations from the Confederation Law, while on the other hand being held accountable to its buyers and citizens.
In Austria, a country whose neutrality is enshrined in the Constitution and other laws, the same as in Switzerland, public opinion strongly opposes neutrality, a policy adopted decades ago as one of the conditions for the withdrawal of Soviet troops at the end of World War II. Vienna’s attitude could partly be explained though the fact that Austria is already shielded by a number of NATO states as well as by its very EU membership. Although there are still large numbers of supporters of neutrality, that doesn’t mean this a topic that has not sparked public debates. Over 50 Australian intellectuals set the tone last spring when they published an open letter, calling on the authorities to officially re-evaluate the country’s neutrality.
The Austrians, the Swiss, even the Irish (who say they are only military, not politically neutral with respect to Ukraine) have virtually announced significant increases of their defense spending. Ravaged by Russia’s infringements, Europe today no longer finds any safety in neutrality.
To other European nations, neutrality is a limited reality. When you’re part of an alliance, neutrality means only partly aligning yourself with powers such as the USA, China or Russia. Therefore, Belarus, France, Serbia, Hungary and Turkey exercised restricted forms of neutrality, each in its specific way. In other words, we are rather witnessing a partial break with the general rule rather than non-alignment or non-participation, a switch from absolute neutrality, which as mentioned before translates into the non-interference in other countries’ conflicts, to attempts at finding an alternative strategy, without excluding the possibility of being part of military alliances. From this point of view, then, Europe at least has a comprehensive spectrum of neutrality, which the war in Ukraine has made quite visible.
Russia argues in favor of neutrality while aggressing neutral states
The source of these ongoing changes is Russia. Looking back, ever since it reinvented itself in the wake of the collapse of the USSR in 1991, all Russia has done was constantly encroach on collective security on the Old Continent. Moreover, Russia itself violated the concept of neutrality in 2014 when it invaded and annexed the Ukrainian Peninsula of Crimea and supported the separatist insurrection in Donbas. Not only was Ukraine a neutral state at the time of the attack, but Russia itself had offered Ukraine security guarantees two decades before, based on the Budapest Memorandum, signed by the United States and Great Britain as well, in exchange for Kyiv renouncing its Soviet-era arsenal. The large-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, whereby Russia triggered the biggest conflict in Europe since the end of World War II, has merely confirmed once again that Moscow’s threat to European security is very real.
Despite its own actions, Moscow is one of the most vocal supporters of the idea of neutrality, yet only as long as neutrality can be used to advance its own agenda. Moscow has opposed the NATO accession of countries from the former Soviet bloc and has encouraged these states, which it sees as part of its sphere of influence, if not something more, to remain neutral. Perhaps the most telling example is that of the Republic of Moldova. Russian propaganda outlets (as well as pro-Russian politicians in Chișinău) have constantly sought to scare Moldovans into thinking that the government will renounce neutrality or that it has already overstepped this status. At the same time, Moscow is illegally stationing troops on the territory of the Republic of Moldova. It supports the breakaway regime in Transnistria, it launched a hybrid war against Chișinău and, according to president Maia Sandu, it even planned a coup. Nor should we forget that Russian missiles illegally crossed Moldova’s airspace, or the signs that appeared at the start of the war, indicating the Republic of Moldova could be Russia’s next target once Ukraine falls (Lukashenko’s map describing Moldova as a target or the statement of Russian Major-General Rustam Minnekaev, the deputy commander of the central military district, regarding southern Ukraine and Transnistria).
The limits of neutrality and the clash of democracies and autocracies
When the general public mobilized in defense of the Ukrainian people invaded by the Russian aggressors, it was virtually impossible for some governments to remain neutral without being perceived as naïve or an accessory to Russia’s crimes. Facing geopolitical risks generated by Moscow’s foreign policy, how could Europeans not express solidarity with Ukraine by sanctioning Russia?! What better way than to grant NATO membership to neutral countries on Russia’s borders, in order to shield them under the umbrella of Western collective defense?
I’m not sure the idea of neutrality would have evolved the way it did under normal circumstances. But it’s become evident that, when faced with major crises, and I’m also referring to the Balkan wars of secession, neutrality has often showed its limitations in Europe. Therefore, right now European nations are almost forced to choose a side, to name the type and scale of the support they are willing to offer. Refusal to do so is itself a choice. Non-participation is no longer a neutral position, but a clear expression of partiality. Not taking sides is thus tantamount to consenting to the destruction of Ukraine’s territorial integrity as a result of Putin’s “military operations” and the shameful referendums organized in September 2022.
That said, is there truly still hope for absolute or partial neutrality? I strongly doubt it. Reality shows we are well on the path of sinking back into a Cold-War logic of democracies vs. autocracies, which many today believe to be a thing of the past.