Two weeks ago on Monday at six, the early risers had to take in the news – much to their surprise – that the Swiss Air Force fighter planes were involved in international manoeuvres in Sweden, Norway and Finland, close to the border with Russia. Particularly annoying: Besides Norway five other NATO countries took part in this manoeuvre, which Russia perceived as a provocation. The evocative name of this manoeuvre is “Arctic Challenge Exercise”, and it has euphemistically been declared a “multinational defence exercise”.
The fictitious scenario was to establish a UN-imposed no-fly zone above the Arctic, similar to the one the UN had established over Libya in 2011, with devastating consequences for the country and its people. The effects of the no-fly zone imposed at the time are perceptible to this day. The country is shattered, a functioning government does no longer exist, and the people are fleeing to Europe in shoals. The goal of this no-fly zone was to gain air superiority over Libya in order to get the country under control and carry out a regime change. There was far and wide no track of civilians’ protection to be seen which before had been pointed out as a reason for establishing the zone. On the contrary, the country was bombed back to the Middle Ages and tens of thousands of innocent civilians were killed. Today no one speaks of that any longer, except the affected people themselves. But who cares?
So that is what a no-fly zone à la NATO looks like. And it was in such an exercise that eight combat aircraft of the Swiss Air Force participated, together with the NATO member states Norway, Holland, Germany, France, Great Britain and the USA. All of them states who were involved in wars in recent years, partly contrary to international law, namely in the most shameful war in terms of violating international law, the aggression against Serbia in 1999.
4,000 soldiers were deployed and exercised as the DDPS (Department of Defence, Civil Protection and Sport) informs in a press release, “the deepening of multinational cooperation in current crisis scenarios [...], the deepening of operational, technical and logistical interoperability”. In addition to the fighter planes Switzerland is on the spot with 16 pilots and 45 ground crew men. As the legal basis for the deployment the DDPS refers to the “Memorandum of Understanding (MOU)”, which has been concluded with the Kingdom of Sweden in June 2002. It is only annoying that it is not Sweden but the NATO country Norway that holds the supreme command of this exercise.
Officially it is a field exercise for a “peace mission”, however, even the conservative German newspaper Welt Online writes on 25 May “the military presence has especially geological reasons [...]. The major manoeuvres are taking place against the background of increasing tensions with Russia and the rivalry for natural resources in the polar region”. Those who have dealt with the new NATO doctrine from 1999 know that the protection of natural resources may be a reason for military intervention. Those who actually believe that this is about a “peace mission”, close their eyes to reality and risk to be in for a shock.
Criticism of the Swiss participation comes from all sides. In the Swiss parliament there is little approval of the Swiss commitment to a NATO manoeuvre on the Russian border.
Jakob Büchler, CVP (Christian People’s Party), security policy-maker and former president of the Defence Commission initially understands that the Swiss Air Force needs to train abroad, as it is no longer possible in the country itself. However, the public’s acceptance of such exercises is very small. He has concerns about NATO: “We need such training opportunities, but not necessarily with NATO. NATO is an offensive and defensive alliance, something unknown in Switzerland as a neutral country.”
Roland Rino Büchel of the SVP (Swiss People’s Party) St. Gallen, Vice Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Commission of the National Council, prefers not to comment on this issue at length, but finds a manoeuvre of this scale problematic: “All joint operations with NATO are questionable, this one in particular.”
The President of the Foreign Affairs Committee Carlo Sommaruga (SP/GE) is not opposed to international assignments if they are bilateral or take place according to a UN mandate: “That Switzerland is participating in international manoeuvres with countries such as Austria, Sweden or other Nordic countries, is not new. It is, however, very problematic to integrate Switzerland into a NATO exercise. Because in that case it is not an exercise in a bilateral partnership. Switzerland can only participate in with an UN mandate or in a bilateral exercise. With NATO, it is problematic. That would require a political decision.” The point is that the whole thing has increased political sensitivity, as well, since it takes place in a very tense situation in Europe at the gates of Russia, although he regards the latter as a geographical inevitability: “The fact that it happens near Russia, depends on the geographical situation of Sweden.” But participation in a NATO-manoeuvre is clearly going too far for him. “The problem is, first, that it is a NATO exercise and secondly, that this exercise is not aimed at defense, but targeted at Russia.” The fact that it is an exercise of NATO, is obvious, even though three non-members are taking part. The Welt Online Magazine titled “NATO rehearses Arctic defense against Russia”, apparently a formulation very much to the point.
For the Member of the National Council Oskar Freysinger (SVP/VS) the whole process is totally unacceptable: “They justify the whole thing by pointing to the UN. But that is absurd. They are conducting a security exercise under the pretext of the UN Security Council against a member of the UN Security Council. Above the Arctic Circle there is only Russia. That cannot be against the Fiji Islands. To organize a manoeuvre against a member of the Security Council under the pretext of the UN – this is the most absurd thing I have ever experienced. They always want to please NATO and they want to please the Americans. We are de facto putting ourselves under the control of the Americans. If Switzerland has a contract with Italy to carry out air combat exercises above the sea, because you cannot exercise in the Valais Alps, it would not bother me, in case it is a neutral manoeuvre to practise with aircrafts. But this exercise here takes place in an explosive political context. This is no longer neutral.”
National Councillor Geri Müller, responsible for the Green Party’s Foreign Policy, found clear words to comment on the use of the Swiss Air Force in conjunction with NATO. “Flight training with NATO is not possible for the Swiss Air Force. NATO is an alliance of states, which already waged several wars of aggression, including the war against Serbia. And now showing off in front of Russia’s gates? This may enormously damage our relationship with Russia.”
To Russian diplomatic circles it is disconcerting that Switzerland participates in these manoeuvresas a neutral country. It is understood that the Swiss Air Force has to train outside the country and that it must do so with other countries, but to practice a war scenario before the gates of Russia together with NATO countries, is something altogether different. It seems that the relationship and trust that has been built up during its OSCE presidency is being endangered and inconsiderately squandered.
Oskar Freysinger therefore demands that Switzerland should seek a better relationship with Russia: “We should make a free trade agreement with Russia. We should be a privileged partner of Russia. We could foster and support many economic interests that way, but we are always afraid. It is said that the United States is our friend, yet since the 90’s they have given us one rotten egg after the other. The Russians have never done that. Now we should set on free trade agreements, in the multilateral world, and that includes the Russians. We are a free country.” •
thk. Whereas from left to right, Switzerland’s participation in the NATO exercise is criticized, for SP National Councillor and “security politician” Evi Allemann “the cooperation with other countries”, “does not gofar enough”, as the “Aargauer Zeitung” wrote on 26 May. She speaks of an “extension of multilateral missions”. Mrs Allemann had strongly engaged against the procurement of a new combat aircraft, the Gripen, among other things on the grounds that Switzerland could in case of a threat work more closely with the EU or NATO. That is, however, a very strange understanding of sovereignty.
thk. In 1996, Switzerland was ushered in a cloak and dagger operation into the NATO sub-organization Partnership for Peace, PfP. The then office holding Federal Councillors Flavio Cotti (EDA) and Adolf Ogi (VBS) signed the declaration of accession, without any debate in parliament. The US with NATO had mainly set up the PfP to lead the former Eastern Bloc countries and Soviet republics closer to NATO and that way prepare them for a successive (full) NATO membership. Although the US had promised Gorbachev not to expand further eastwards. That act was and is certainly not compatible with Switzerland’s neutrality. After the Cold War ended and a uni-polar world emerged, the majority of the Federal Council no longer assigned the same meaning to the Swiss neutrality as it basically had been assigned to during the Cold War. In recent years, however, the geopolitical situation has once more fundamentally changed. The uni-polar world has become a multipolar one, a fact that the former hegemon USA is hesitant to accept. In this situation, the neutrality of Switzerland is of utmost importance. It is Switzerland alone that can mediate convincingly between the power blocs. Switzerland can only do so credibly if it officially withdraws from PfP – better sooner than later.
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