Ambassador of Switzerland to Ukraine, Félix Baumann
Neutrality does not mean indifference. We hear Ukraine
20.12.2023 17:00

Switzerland's solidarity with Ukraine has not diminished since February 24, 2022, as the country has repeatedly condemned Russia's military aggression in the strongest terms, including in the UN Security Council, of which it is an elected member for 2023-2024, and adopted all EU sanctions against Russia, according to Swiss Ambassador to Ukraine Felix Baumann, who spoke in an interview with Ukrinform. The Ambassador also elaborated on Switzerland's role in supporting President Volodymyr Zelensky's Peace Formula, aid to Ukraine, contribution to the investigation of Russian war crimes, as well as investments and cultural diplomacy.

The conversation also touched upon the "sensitive" (as the diplomat himself put it) issue for Ukrainians, which is the ban on the re-export by third countries to Ukraine of military material produced by Switzerland. Ambassador Baumann explained in detail the provisions of the national legislation on the export restrictions related to warring parties, at the same time noting the ongoing discussion in parliament on amending the relevant law. "We hear Ukraine," he assured as the interview was recorded on Monday, December 18. Before the interview was published, Swiss media reported that Swiss lawmakers had authorized the government to approve arms exports in exceptional cases.


- Thanks for being with us, Ambassador! So many important questions I would like to discuss, and first of all, do the Swiss actually feel that Russia's war against Ukraine has been going on in Europe for almost two years now? Are the local media still covering the hostilities, their political and economic implications? What areas of life in Switzerland did the Russian war against Ukraine affect, if any?

- Since February 24, 2022, a wave of solidarity swept over Switzerland, and this solidarity is still there today. For example, if you walk the streets of Swiss cities, you will see many Ukrainian flags, and yes, the Swiss media are still covering the war both when it comes to the suffering endured by the Ukrainian population but also more broadly to the consequences of the war for Europe and the world.

Just two weeks ago, I had two journalists of a widely read Swiss magazine that came to Kyiv and Kharkiv, and I think this really shows the interest. What we saw was the solidarity of the Swiss population when they welcomed more than 80,000 people from Ukraine, who were seeking refuge in Switzerland. Now this is a bit under 65,000. But also there was a real shock to see that there was a war again on our continent and many people spontaneously started to help where they could.

- In mid-January, Switzerland will host a meeting of advisers to the heads of state to discuss the Ukrainian Peace Formula. Your country is already part of the working group on nuclear security, and has also expressed readiness to join the working groups on food security and confirmation of the end of the war. How does Switzerland think the end of war can be achieved?

- About three weeks ago, the President of the Swiss Confederation, Alain Berset, came to Kyiv where he met with President Zelensky. He assured him of the ongoing support on the part of Switzerland. Yes, Switzerland supports President Zelensky's Peace Formula initiative as a means to achieve a just and lasting peace. And we decided to join the working group on the confirmation of the end of the war because we feel that Switzerland can bring in or share some of its experience and expertise when it comes to mediation or the legal provisions of a ceasefire.

And we're also ready to bring in the experiences and views of the countries of the Global South into the discussion. I think that's really important. Any armed conflict in general ends with a negotiation but of course, it's up to Ukraine in the end to decide how and when it wants to negotiate with Russia. Switzerland stands at disposal through its good offices whenever the parties wish that.


- While the war is ongoing here on the Ukrainian battlefields, obviously Russia is also really keen on provoking different kinds of artificial crises elsewhere, employing its hybrid warfare tools. The latest example is the migrant crisis on the Russian-Finnish border. Is the Swiss Confederation facing such "artificial crises" and what security measures does the country's government resort to prevent or tackle them?

- Switzerland constantly steps up its means to prevent any threat to its national security wherever it might come from. And cyber security has grown hugely, of course, at all levels in recent years. Switzerland’s government decided to step up the national center for cyber security into a full-fledged federal office on January 1, 2024. At the same time, to anticipate challenges to national security, a new State Secretariat for Security Policy will be established in the Federal Department of Defense, also on January 1. Yes, there are such actions (on the part of Russia – ed.). For example, last June, when President Zelensky made his virtual address to the Swiss Parliament, in the weeks before, there had been several distributed denial of service attacks, targeting different Swiss organization and authorities.

- And now comes the important question for many average Ukrainians. And that is on neutrality. It is difficult for ordinary Ukrainians to understand such a manifestation of Switzerland's neutrality as the prohibition for third countries to re-export to Ukraine any weapons fully or partially manufactured in Switzerland. Could you explain why Switzerland sticks to this position despite general understanding of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and the need to repel it?

- I'm fully aware that this is a very sensitive issue so let me try to explain the underlying legal rationale. The basis of Switzerland's neutrality is Neutrality Act. It only applies to the military sphere. Basically, a neutral state cannot do two things: it cannot join a military alliance and it is not allowed to support warring states militarily. But beyond Neutrality Act, the government is also bound by our War Material Act. This Act also has a provision that excludes exports of war materiel to worrying parties. The provision is also relevant when Switzerland is requested by other countries to give its consent to the transfer, or as you said, the re-exportation, of war materiel. Due to the export criteria that we have in this War Material Act and the principle of equal treatment that we have in Neutrality Act, that’s exactly the reason why Switzerland cannot agree to the transfer or the reexport of war materiel of Swiss origin to Ukraine. So what the Swiss government does is it applies the existing law.

But we hear Ukraine. And actually, in the Swiss parliament, there are several proposals on amending this War Material Act that are currently being discussed in the relevant commissions and parliamentary chambers, but the decision has not been made. (As of the time the interview was published, two days after it was recorded, the Swiss Parliament has passed the amendments to the War Material Act, as per Swiss Info).But let me also stress here, that neutrality does not mean indifference. Far from that, Switzerland has over and over condemned in the strongest possible terms Russia's military aggression against Ukraine, also, in the UN Security Council, of which Switzerland is an elected member in 2023 and 2024. Switzerland has adopted all EU sanctions. And we will see in our conversation today, I hope, that Switzerland provides support to Ukraine in a wide range of areas where it has, or we think we can have an added value, and this solidarity is here to stay.

- Another significant issue is the utilization of frozen Russian assets. On December 12, the European Commission approved the proposal for the mechanism for utilizing revenues from Russia’s frozen sovereign assets for the benefit of Ukraine. Switzerland has frozen approximately 7.7 billion Swiss francs ($8.81 billion) in financial assets belonging to Russians as part of Russia sanctions. Your country is not a member of the EU but will your government be guided in the relevant decision-making by the mechanism proposed by the European Commission?

- First of all, the Swiss government has taken note of the political agreement reached within the EU last week. And yes, we will monitor the developments in this regard, and the government will indeed determine what action, if any, must be taken on the Swiss side. And, in addition, yes, Switzerland has monitored and continues to monitor all other steps that are taken at the international level concerning sanctioned Russian assets, and particularly the discussion within the G7 or within the EU on the immobilized Russian state-owned assets.


- Now a practical question on the Swiss assistance to Ukraine. I know that in late September, your government approved 100 million Swiss francs for farmland demining. Are we talking about financial assistance or is about the mine clearance equipment that is to be provided to Ukraine?

- Humanitarian demining will be a key priority of Switzerland in Ukraine for the coming years. The mine clearance of schools and hospitals is an absolute humanitarian imperative. At the same time, (addressing – ed.) the deep mine pollution of farmland is equally important to start the recovery of the Ukrainian economy. To respond to Ukraine's priorities and needs, combined with providing expertise, we devised the package in different directions. It's about mine clearance, including of farmland, but also about providing machines and the relevant monitoring and training associated with the delivery of these machines. And there is also a focus on new renovative technologies with regard to demining.

I think what is also important is risk education. I was attending in Kharkiv two weeks ago a class that was given by a Swiss foundation to 10-year-old children on the risks caused by mines. And we also have the Geneva International Center for Humanitarian Demining which is already providing capacity building assistance to the Ukrainian authorities. But what we also want to do is to keep up the momentum for mine action in Ukraine, and we will organize jointly with Ukraine a workshop in Kyiv next April. And then, in autumn next year, we plan a ministerial conference in Geneva together.


- Does Switzerland plan to take an active part in the investigation of war crimes in Ukraine, in particular, the facts of the abduction and deportation of Ukrainian children?

- Switzerland is firmly convinced that war crimes and violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law must be investigated and prosecuted in each and every event. Fight against impunity for the most serious crimes is also is a priority of Switzerland, and that's why we are in favor of a Special Tribunal for the crime of aggression. Switzerland exactly one month ago joined the core group of countries that are advocating such Tribunal. We joined the register of damage of the Council of Europe, which will record evidence of damage, loss, or injury occurred on the territory of Ukraine since February 24.

And as for concrete assistance, just last week, a group of Swiss forensic experts left Ukraine. They had been here for about a month to support the International Criminal Court and to gather information and evidence, which one day can be can be used in court.

And also, last week, I had the privilege to hand over free full-cycle DNA analyzer machines to the State Scientific Research Forensic Center of the Ministry of Internal Affairs to help the forensic experts in the identification of missing people. And I really hope that these machines will help the experts in their extremely important work to find answers for all those families that have loved ones, relatives that are missing.

- On the receiving end of Russian aggression are, of course, Ukraine military and civilians – the victims of those aggression. And of course, as a country at war, we sometimes find it challenging to have enough capacity to provide for quality rehabilitation programs for those affected. Does Switzerland help Ukraine in providing such rehabilitation assistance to the victims of Russian aggression?

- Let me just briefly say that actually Switzerland's support for Ukraine did not start only last year. We’ve been in Ukraine with various cooperation projects on the ground for more than 25 years. We supported the strengthening of democratic institutions, of decentralization, and of sustainable cities. This was also about healthcare. Cooperation in the health sector has been a priority for many, many years. And this will continue to be the case. And yes, of course, there will be an enormous need for rehabilitation services in the coming years and we’ve already started to support efforts in this area, and we will continue to do so. And on the war trauma rehabilitation, there is an important project with Swiss funding that aims at different aspects, including to provide equipment to health care facilities, but also to train those practitioners who are working in rehabilitation. It also about the important issues of developing the legislation to strengthen the entire rehabilitation system in Ukraine in the coming years. So it is a yes to your question, we are and we will support Ukraine in this field.


- Recently, Business Ombudsman Roman Vashchuk for the first time since the full-scale invasion met with the Swiss business community in Ukraine. What Swiss businesses currently operate in Ukraine? What are their main achievements?

- The Swiss companies operating in Ukraine cover a wide range of sectors of activity, from machine building and pharmaceuticals to logistics and nutrition. Actually, I'm glad to say that all the companies that were here before February 24, 2022, stayed in Ukraine. For some, of course, the situation is not easy, but I'm going to say I admire the resilience of the management and staff of these companies. Some of them had to change their business model to readapt to the new realities. And also, many of them actually provided humanitarian assistance in their respective field of activity to the local communities where they are located. And what we also see currently is even examples of companies investing into new factories in Ukraine. And I think this really shows how unique the situation in Ukraine is because we provide humanitarian assistance, there are cooperation projects, we have a peace and human rights program. But at the same time, we promote small and medium enterprises and their competitiveness. And we have big companies investing. And all of this is taking place at the same time, and this is really quite unique.


- In one of the interviews, you said your priority for the coming months would be to get out of the bubble, that is, travel beyond Kyiv to explore other regions, especially those that were most affected by war. You already spoke briefly about your visit to Kharkiv… Could you elaborate on your plans?

- Yes, actually, I’ve already started to do so. In fact, beyond the trip to Kharkiv, I was also two weeks ago to Kryvyi Rih, Zaporizhzhia, and Vysokopillia in Kherson oblast. During these trips, beyond meeting the governors, I also meet beneficiaries of projects that had been funded by Swiss humanitarian aid. I could witness what these ordinary people have gone through, and are still going through. For example, in Vysokopillia, I met an old lady, who came back to her house, which was severely damaged during the occupation last year. And, you know, after some repair of the roof and after new windows were installed, she could stay in a warm living room. And in Kharkiv, I met a 25-year-old young lady, an IDP from Izium. Thanks to a small grant, she was able to realize her dream – to open a bakery. And so, when these examples show me the immense gratitude of your people and I see that sometimes, with a small project, you can actually have a large impact. And I see also the needs of the people and how they change over time.

And actually, Switzerland beyond its support for the very important work being done by the multilateral institutions of the UN system, is one of the few countries to implement humanitarian assistance projects on its own, together with local partners, government, and civil society in the east and south of the country. Every week, I have colleagues from the Embassy, humanitarian aid experts, who travel close to the front line. And this allows us to react very quickly and very efficiently to the needs of those that need aid most.

- I see that Switzerland interacts with Ukraine at so many levels – NGOs, government, commercial…. But let's speak about human to human contact, especially given the large number of displaced Ukrainians now living in Switzerland. Do the Swiss now know more about Ukraine, its culture, its modern art? What do you think could be the prospects for cultural dialogue between our two nations?

- I think Switzerland and Ukraine are both proud of their culture, their traditions, and their language. As you know, Switzerland has four national languages. So we believe in diversity and inclusion as a motor of progress. I think also both our countries cherish their independence. Also, we shared with Ukraine our experience on decentralization. And I think you’re correct, we can learn a lot from Ukraine, including when it comes to digitalization of public services.

Indeed, there are many interactions taking place in Switzerland between Swiss families and the Ukrainians. At the same time, at the government level, we funded measures last year to protect the cultural heritage of Ukraine. There were actually two exhibitions, in Basel and Geneva, with artwork from Ukrainian museums. And I think that was a possibility for the public to get acquainted with it. I also hope that in a not so distant future, we will again be able to showcase creativity here in Ukraine. A nice example, actually, last year was the first ever Kyiv Design Week, which was organized by young curators and designers from Ukraine. It was hosted in Zurich. I must say I believe in what I would call “design diplomacy” as a tool for dialogue between our countries, to bring together innovation, creative economy, science, and culture. And I'm also convinced that designers will probably play an important role when it comes to finding innovative solutions for a sustainable recovery of Ukraine.

- We all hope so, and we also hope that the end of war comes eventually and we will be able to develop our cooperation between the two countries on a whole different level and in peaceful circumstances.

Thank you for being with us today!

- Thanks for having me!

Ievgen Matiushenko, Kyiv

Photo by Ruslan Kaniuka

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