“We Swiss do not have to have our Neutrality defined by Putin”


“We Swiss do not have to have our Neutrality defined by Putin”

17 June, 2024

Artikel Sonntags Zeitung 16.06.2024


Diplomacy The well-known former ambassador Thomas Borer explains the importance of the Bürgenstock Conference for Switzerland. And he explains how the meeting is compatible with neutrality.

Thomas Borer was one of Switzerland’s best-known diplomats. He explains what the conference on the Bürgenstock actually means. And he also tells us where the Federal Council made mistakes in the run-up to the conference. Borer was Switzerland’s ambassador to Germany, and he headed the Switzerland – Second World War Task Force.

There have never been so many state guests in Switzerland at once. President Viola Amherd and Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis are in the public eye. But, Mr Borer, what exactly is the point of the expensive peace conference if one of the warring parties is not present?

In principle, I would take a positive view of any initiative that promotes dialogue and a settlement of the war. The Bürgenstock Conference on Peace in Ukraine, as it is officially called, has the potential to build bridges where there were previously trenches. However, I do not see the conference as a truly global endeavour, but rather as a long overdue forum in which states committed to fundamental Western values can first consolidate their opinions and then agree on a direction of travel.

So it’s not so bad that Russia and its ally China aren’t there?

Yes, the absence of key players Russia and China is a serious flaw. Russia sees the conference as being orchestrated by the West anyway and insufficiently balanced to recognise its security interests and the “new realities” in which Russia wants to annex part of Ukraine.

Was it a mistake for the Federal Council not to invite Russia?

Yes, I regret that Switzerland made too many concessions to Ukrainian President Volodimir Zelensky at an early stage. It should have insisted on an invitation from Russia. Moscow would probably have declined this invitation and thus put itself even further on the sidelines. That would have been good for Switzerland.

However, Vladimir Putin announced early on that Russia would boycott the conference even if invited.

Russia’s rejection of the conference under the given circumstances is not surprising. Moscow has made it clear that it will only participate in talks that respect its security interests and recognise the reality of its territorial control. For Moscow, participation in a peace conference in a Western setting would be a sign of weakness.

Is the Federal Council not violating neutrality by not inviting Russia?

The law of neutrality only requires neutrals to refrain from military participation in war. Switzerland strictly honours this obligation. It also does not supply weapons to the belligerents. Furthermore, Switzerland is free to interpret its neutrality policy as it sees fit. There is no economic or moral neutrality. As a country closely bound by international law, it may condemn Russia’s unlawful aggression against Ukraine and also participate in the economic sanctions against Moscow. It may also organise a peace conference with unilateral participation. The fact that this does not suit the Russian regime is irrelevant to our neutrality status. We Swiss do not allow our neutrality to be defined by Putin.

The Chinese say that the conference is prolonging the war.

I see it differently. Russia’s fierce reactions against the conference and the insulting attacks on President Viola Amherd on Russian state television clearly show that the conference is having an effect on Russia. The conference is a thorn in the side of the Russian regime. Incidentally, China’s non-participation in the conference is a diplomatic mistake. In a way, China is siding with Moscow. This will strengthen the hardliners in the US and the EU, who are calling for a “de-coupling” of the Western economy from China and the political isolation of this country.

But that is what the Chinese diplomats mean: If anything, the conference will fuel Putin’s anger at the West.

That may be true. But the decisive factor is that, thanks to the conference, the issue of peace talks is now on the table. Switzerland has already achieved an important diplomatic success and has gained goodwill in key regions of the world. Apparently, Saudi Arabia has agreed to organise a follow-up conference on the Bürgenstock. If it comes to that, then it is clear that Switzerland’s peace efforts will not simply peter out. And over 90 countries are represented, some of them at a high level. This shows the importance of the conference.

It became known that the final declaration had already been passed back and forth between the countries days before the conference. So is this meeting just a show in which the heads of state toast the outcome?

At every conference, diplomats from all participating countries work behind the scenes for months on the final documents and seek a compromise. During the conference, such documents are often only finalised and little is changed. But the gathering of dozens of heads of state and the formal signature give this work the formal blessing and the necessary publicity.

What do you expect as a result?

The conference will initiate a peace process and announce a follow-up conference. It will set a rough framework and a roadmap for achieving peace. It remains to be seen whether Russia’s aggression will also be condemned as contrary to international law.

Mischa Aebi and Arthur Rutishauser

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