Neutral but fully armed: Switzerland looks to its own defence

Switzerland still has compulsory military and civil service for young people, while the 26 Swiss cantons have considerable civil defence competences

Switzerland started reforming its defence capabilities long before Russia’s war in Ukraine. Photograph: Elodie Le Maou/AFP via Getty Images

There was a touch of Top Gun glamour when Capt Marcel “Frodo” Rust landed his F/A-18 Hornet fighter jet in a cloud of fumes, dust and rubber.

And not on air force tarmac or a film set, either, but a stretch of autobahn in western Switzerland, 100km north of Geneva, emptied for the country’s first such air force exercise since 1991.

Days before it hosted last weekend’s high-level peace talks on Ukraine, Switzerland reminded its citizens – and the world – what a neutral country can do in these changed times.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 saw non-aligned Europe shrink drastically. Finland and Sweden dashed for the common defence shield of Nato, leaving a handful of neutral countries: Ireland, Austria, Malta and Switzerland.


With a national identity linked for centuries to self-sufficiency and self-defence, the modern Swiss federation has been neutral since its foundation in 1815.

Capt Marcel 'Frodo' Rust lands his F/A-18 Hornet fighter on a motorway north of Geneva. Photograph: VBS/DDPS

Drawing today on the 1907 Hague Convention, this states that neutral countries “cannot participate in wars directly or indirectly. Neither should they support or favour warring parties militarily, nor make their territory available to them, supply them with weapons or credits, or restrict private armaments exports in a one-sided way.”

Though this position kept Switzerland out of two world wars, neutrality is not viewed here as a synonym for antimilitarism, pacifism or defencelessness.

“As a neutral country we see a special obligation to look after our own defence, we don’t want to become a burden for other countries,” says Pälvi Pulli, deputy secretary of state on security policy in the Swiss federal department of defence. “Not being a member of any big unions and alliances, there is a compelling reason to look after defence ourselves.”

Ambassador Palvi Pulli, Switzerland's head of security policy at the federal department of defence, civil protection and sport

It’s something Switzerland takes seriously. Its armed forces have a headcount of 150,000 and equipment that includes more than 2,300 tanks and other military vehicles as well as 263 planes. Switzerland still has compulsory military and civil service for young people, while the 26 Swiss cantons have considerable civil defence competences.

As a non-aligned country, the Swiss view neutrality not as a mental hammock but a state of readiness.

And long before Russia’s war in Ukraine scrambled even old certainties, Switzerland was rethinking and reforming its defence capabilities.

The face of the new era is Viola Amherd, defence minister since 2019 and, since January 1st, federal president.

Swiss federal president Viola Amherd at a plenary session during a Summit on Peace in Ukraine, near Lucerne in central Switzerland. Photograph: Urs Flueeler/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Elements of her overhaul include a new armed forces cyber defence command centre, a new secretary of state for security policy and long-delayed military equipment procurement.

The latter was put to the people most visibly in September 2020, in line with the Swiss direct democracy tradition, when voters narrowly backed plans to procure new fighter jets.

That order was already in – for 36 F-35s, at a total cost of €7.1 billion – when Russia invaded Ukraine.

The subsequent shock saw parliament back plans to increase defence spending by the end of the decade, to 1 per cent of gross domestic product.

While the news site Politico called out Ireland last month as Europe’s “ultimate defence freeloader”, for its inability to defend its own territorial waters or airspace, the Swiss are not counting on emergency assistance from outside.

“If there were to be war, it is not self-evident that we could expect support just like that,” says Pulli. “We have to make a reasonable effort – and invest money – in self-defence.”

This stance was formalised in a September 2022 policy paper, backed by cabinet, which said it was in the national interest to “orient security and defence policy more consistently than before towards international co-operation” – specifically the EU and Nato.

Officials here say joining Nato’s Partnership for Peace (PFP) programme in the 1990s, as controversial in Switzerland as it was in Ireland, has boosted Swiss defence capabilities considerably. Similar thinking saw Switzerland join Nato’s Co-operative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence in Estonia in 2019 and the European Sky Shield Initiative, along with Austria, last April. Established in August 2022, its stated goal for members is a ground-based integrated European air defence system.

If this all seems quite a lot for a neutral country, the greatest shift has come this week.

Though neutral, Switzerland was the world’s 14th biggest arms supplier, according to 2022 data, but it is illegal for buyers to pass on Swiss-made weapons to a third party without approval from Bern.

This clause was seen as a crucial part of maintaining Swiss neutrality but has seen Bern refuse Denmark, Spain and Germany permission to re-export Swiss-made tanks to Ukraine.

After a slump in Swiss arms sales last year, a compromise proposal agreed this week would allow 25 listed countries re-export weapons five years after purchase. These new rules, to be applied retroactively, are likely to benefit Ukraine if it passes parliament and, possibly, a referendum in the next 18 months.

We understand the limits, a country with Swiss resources could not defend itself against an overpowering opponent like Russia with its means

—  Ambassador Palvi Pulli

It’s not the only such vote looming on neutrality. As Russia criticises Switzerland in public as an unfriendly nation – some sense political opportunity at home.

The right-wing populist Swiss People’s Party has attacked recent shifts as an “incomprehensible and deliberate attempts to undermine neutrality”.

“As a result of this flighty foreign policy, Switzerland is no longer perceived as a neutral state and is therefore no longer credible for all parties to the conflict,” it argued in April, handing in a petition of the 130,000 signatures required to launch an initiative to to anchor neutrality in the constitution.

If backed by voters in a referendum it could curtail all defence partnerships with all countries closely involved in assisting Ukraine.

It is not the only hurdle ahead on military readiness, with financial undertakings for new defence spending – on radar systems, missiles and tanks – not yet a done deal.

There are plans to raise the defence budget to €27 billion for the four years between 2025 and 2028, up 18 per cent on the previous four-year period. But a major budget deficit for 2023, triggering spending cuts across all government departments, has raised the stakes.

Is the extra money for defence necessary and, if so, should it come from tax increases or further budget cuts elsewhere?

Amid this heated debate, ordinary Swiss citizens appear to view neutrality neither as a given nor a low-cost option.

A representative survey from January found 92 per cent of Swiss favour a well-trained and well-equipped army, up three points on 2023; some 91 per cent backed maintaining Swiss neutrality.

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In uncertain times, Swiss officials insist their belief in international law remains as firm as their belief in national defence and neutrality. But even the Hague treaty, officials point out, allows a neutral people, if attacked, to “defend themselves against violations of their neutrality”.

“We understand the limits, a country with Swiss resources could not defend itself against an overpowering opponent like Russia with its means,” says Pulli. “But we need to prepare for the eventuality of armed aggression and have the conditions in place to organise co-operation or even common defence if necessary, and decided on by politicians.”

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