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Switzerland joining the banking boycott of Russia is dividing the country -The Australian - 02.06.22

For two centuries the Swiss have avoided the black shafts of blood and death that come with war. It is a handsome country of striking, often ancient architecture framed by abrupt snowy peaks, long glaciers and deep, clear-water lakes says Alan Howe - History and Obituaries Editor.

Perhaps the rest of Europe might look like Switzerland does today. But it doesn’t. Europe’s wars – particularly the bombs dropped between 1939 and 1945 – have taken a dreadful toll, scars we can witness to this day in the reshaped London and Liverpool, Bremen and Berlin.

Few bombs have fallen on Switzerland, a nation famed – some would say notorious – for its 207-year-old policy of neutrality. But is its neutrality these days an indulgence?

Lord Byron, after spending the summer of 1816 in Geneva (with Mary Shelley who wrote the Frankenstein novel on that trip), dismissed Switzerland as “a curst, selfish, swinish country of brutes, placed in the most romantic region of the world”. Others might see that as harsh.

And in an increasingly polarised and dangerous world such a policy is proving difficult to maintain. Even the Swiss, 95 per cent of whom wish to preserve its neutrality, recently, in an unprecedented change, broke their age-old rule and joined the West’s banking boycott of Russia following Vladimir Putin’s cruel, irrational and bloody invasion of Ukraine.

The Swiss have so far reportedly frozen almost $US16bn in Russian assets locked in their secretive bank vaults ($2bn of which was reported to be the personal wealth of the Russian president). The Swiss opposition quickly labelled the move an act of war. But then neutral, and panicked, Sweden and Finland began urgently negotiating to join NATO.

Michael Shoebridge, Director, Defence, Strategy and National Security at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said Switzerland would have been “caught up in secondary sanctions” had it not joined the banking boycott.

“Putin’s war in Ukraine has been an enormous identity shock to Europeans. The new German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, three days into the war undid decades of rock solid German policy. The Europeans have thought of themselves as postwar Europe since 1945. They can’t anymore.”

But Switzerland did not have the same threat as Sweden and Finland. There is less imperative for the Swiss. “What is the abiding threat?” Shoebridge asked. Nonetheless, their joining the banking boycott “is big news”. “But it’s not like there’s a uniform change in Europe. It’s quite discordant. Switzerland won’t be feeling isolated.”

So have the Swiss, with their enshrined neutrality so protected that they did not join even the United Nations until 2002 – and then only after a perilously close referendum – finally taken sides. Sort of.

Switzerland is geographically blessed to be locked in by Italy, Germany, Austria and France – EU and/or NATO heavyweights (pedants might add Liechtenstein, a trivial principality whose army of 80 soldiers was disbanded more than a century ago, with a population today still less than Lismore and a Swiss border far shorter than a marathon run).

Taking its traditional each-way bet, Switzerland will never join NATO, however it is part of NATO’s Partnership for Peace program. But so too is Russia. Vowing not to repeat the mistakes of Europe’s past, Russia joined in 1994, at which time United States president Bill Clinton declared: “Today Russia took an important step to help shape a safer and more peaceful post-Cold War world.”

If only.

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Ukraine invasion - Switzerland joining the banking boycott of Russia is dividing the count
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Are the Swiss turning their backs on neutrality? A young traveller enjoys the view over Switzerland’s famed Lake Geneva. Picture: iStock

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