Sweden, Finland, and Switzerland are historically known for their neutrality with regard to their foreign policies. Well, not anymore. The three countries are breaking their streak of neutrality on foreign affairs amidst the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine. Within the past few days of military and political developments, the three have notably agreed to adopt the economic sanctions imposed by the European Union on Moscow, while Sweden has called to impose tougher, more stringent sanctions on the Russian invaders.

In fact, just as recent as today, the three countries had voted in favor of the United Nations General Assembly Resolution deploring the Russian invasion of Ukraine, calling for the immediate withdrawal of Russian troops on Ukrainian soil. They join 138 other countries in this historic vote. Even Austria and Ireland, both of which also classify themselves as neutral, voted in favor of the resolution.

The United Nations General Assembly after the voting results had been shared on the screens. The announcement was met with thunderous applause from the assembly (TASS/AP Photo/Seth Wenig via The Moscow Times)

Times are indeed changing. With the situation in Ukraine worsening as Russian bombardments have not stopped, the usage of cluster bombs, and with the targeting of civilian populations, neutral countries are now making a stand with Ukraine in an unprecedented shift in foreign policy.

“Russia’s brutal war of aggression against Ukraine is a new dark chapter in the history of Europe. But the attack on Ukraine has clearly demonstrated the unity of the EU’s 27 Member States against Russian aggression and for solidarity with the Ukrainian people. Now is the time for even tougher sanctions and even greater support,” said Sweden’s EU Minister Hans Dahlgren.

Cooperation from these countries provides a stark contrast to their impartiality in recent years. Finland had stayed independent ever since the USSR’s collapse. For the longest time, Sweden and Switzerland have maintained a non-aligned status even through the Second World War and the Cold War. All three countries are not members of NATO, with the Swiss not even part of the European Union to ensure its neutrality. However, in the present, these countries have not only joined NATO allies in imposing economic sanctions but have essentially aligned their beliefs to that of the West. Such change marks a crucial shift in EU foreign policy.

Last December 2021, Russia demanded security guarantees from the United States and NATO. They issued two draft documents that opposed the expansion of NATO and promoted the establishment of Russian influence in eastern Europe. The brashness of the proposals further fueled already heated foreign policy debates in Finland and Sweden. However, Putin’s action in Ukraine seems to have brought him contradictory results.

“Not only is NATO more unified, look at what’s going on in terms of Finland, look at what’s going on in terms of Sweden, look at what’s going on in other countries. I mean, he’s producing the exact opposite effect that he intended,” said US President Joe Biden in an interview with Brian Tyler Cohen.

Support from Scandinavia

President of the Republic of Finland Sauli Niinistö met with Prime Minister of Sweden Magdalena Andersson at the Presidential Palace on Wednesday, 8 December 2021 (Matti Porre/The Office of the President of the Republic of Finland). Source: https://www.presidentti.fi/en/news/president-niinisto-met-with-prime-minister-of-sweden-magdalena-andersson/
President of the Republic of Finland Sauli Niinistö met with Prime Minister of Sweden Magdalena Andersson at the Presidential Palace on Wednesday, December 8, 2021 (Matti Porre/The Office of the President of the Republic of Finland)

The two Nordic countries, Sweden and Finland, have agreed to adopt the EU’s economic sanctions on Russia and have expressed their support for the people of Ukraine. Both have also agreed to close their air space for Russian airplanes. Some Swedish and Finnish companies have also pulled out their operations from Russia. In a historical foreign policy move, the two countries even announced that they would be sending military equipment to Ukraine. Sweden is sending 5,000 anti-tank weapons, 5,000 helmets, 5,000 units of body armor, and 135,000 field rations to the beleaguered country. The last time Sweden offered this level of participation in the armed conflict between two nations was when the Soviet Union attacked Finland in 1939. During WWII, Swedish neutrality meant it traded with both the Allies and Nazi Germany.

Magdalena Andersson is elected Sweden's first female Prime Minister on November 24, 2021 (Wikimedia Commons). Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Magdalena_Andersson_is_elected_Prime_Minister_in_2021._01.jpg
Magdalena Andersson is elected Sweden’s first female Prime Minister on November 24, 2021 (Frankie FouganthinCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Finland has also announced on February 28 that it will send arms to Ukraine in a significant military foreign policy shift. In a press release, the Finnish government announced that it would send 2,500 assault rifles, 1,500 anti-tank weapons, 150 attack rifle cartridges, and 70,000 packs of combat rations to Ukraine. This supply package is added to the 2,000 composite helmets, 100 stretchers, 2,000 bulletproof vests, and enough equipment for two emergency medical stations they pledged on February 27.

Internal support within the countries to join NATO has grown exponentially since the start of the war, particularly within Finland, which has the longest EU border with Russia. The Kremlin has expressed its concerns regarding this possibility and warned of its consequences.

“It is obvious that if Finland and Sweden join NATO, which is primarily a military organization, this would have serious military and political consequences that would compel the Russian Federation to take retaliatory steps,” said Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova.

However, the two Nordic countries seemed unfazed by Russia’s remarks as they agreed to join NATO’s emergency meeting last week, where they were offered increased intelligence coordination. It is still unlikely to see a Finnish and Sweden ascendency to NATO given strong resistance within the countries’ respective political parties. Still, as the war continues, public pressure to reconsider their foreign policy is likely to grow.

Swiss Sanctions on Russia

Switzerland’s sharp deviation from its country’s traditional foreign policy of non-alignment was justified by Swiss President and Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis.

“We are in an extraordinary situation where extraordinary measures could be decided,” said Cassis on February 28, who had the support of his defense, finance, and justice ministers.

Official Portrait of Swiss President Ignazio Cassis (Wikimedia Commons). Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ignazio_Cassis_(2020).jpg
Official Portrait of Swiss President Ignazio Cassis (Chancellerie fédérale suisse / Annette Boutellier & Yoshiko Kusano, Attribution, via Wikimedia Commons)

The move comes a few days after mass demonstrations of up to 20,000 people in Bern, where they had called for Peace for Ukraine and all of Europe. “Only history would tell if such a move could happen again,” he said. “But of course, we stand on the side of Western values,” Cassis added.

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In a press release, the Swiss government announced that it would send 25 tons of relief supplies to Ukraine, which the Swiss Humanitarian Aid will transport from their Armed Forces Pharmacy to Poland.

The country has also implemented financial sanctions on Russian President Vladimir Putin, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, along with a ban on 5 unnamed Russian oligarchs from entering the country. The Swiss are also expanding their ban on trade and investments to the Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, regions that Russia has declared to be independent.

Russian entities kept approximately 10.4 billion Swiss francs (USD 11.33 billion) in Swiss banks in 2020, according to the Swiss National Bank. Swiss Finance Minister Ueli Maurer expressed his confidence in the country’s ability to absorb the economic impacts of the sanctions.

“It is often bandied about that Russia is the most important financial center for Switzerland, but it is not; it is rather a minor player,” Maurer stated. Although the country seeks to keep its neutrality intact, it said that it would not allow Switzerland to be used as a tool for Russia to avoid EU sanctions.

Historical context

During military conflicts in the 19th century, Sweden maintained its neutral status, officially being proclaimed as neutral by King Gustav XIV in 1834. During World War II, it preserved its neutral state by allowing German forces to pass through Swedish territory and, at the same time, taking in refugees who Nazi Germany was persecuting including many thousands of Jews from Denmark and Hungary.

After World War II, Finland had deemed itself neutral in 1948 when it signed the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance with the USSR. However, they did not internationally declare their neutrality in international law or pledges, so the USSR treaty dictated their neutrality during that time.

On the other hand, Switzerland was neutral ever since the Peace of Westphalia was signed in 1640, a treaty that ended the Thirty Years’ War in Europe. They were guaranteed permanent neutrality when the Congres of Vienna in 1815 reestablished the Swiss Confederation after being occupied by France.

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