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Switzerland joins sanctions against Russia, but claims it remains legally neutral

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Countries have been asked to join the international economic sanctions against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. One surprise among those nations sanctioning Russia is Switzerland, long-known for its tradition of self-proclaimed neutrality. NPR's Jackie Northam reports on what led to the decision and the debate it's prompted.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: It took several days after pressure from the European Union for Switzerland to announce it was freezing the assets of Russian oligarchs and officials, closing airspace to Russian planes, and barring many of those close to President Putin from visiting the Alpine nation. Switzerland's ambassador to the U.S., Jacques Pitteloud, in an interview told NPR why the sanctions were necessary.

JACQUES PITTELOUD: To see a sovereign state attacking another sovereign state without any reason and without any justification and thus violating the very basic tenets of the international order was, for Switzerland, a major shock, definitely.

NORTHAM: But Pitteloud strongly disagrees that Switzerland has abandoned its neutrality by sanctioning Russia.

PITTELOUD: We have to explain Switzerland's position all the time. I mean, even very serious and very big newspapers in the U.S. spoke about Switzerland shredding its neutrality, which made us recoil in horror because we didn't. We didn't.

NORTHAM: Ambassador Pitteloud says Switzerland is still neutral under an internationally recognized legal definition. He says, for example, it's not supplying weapons or troops to the conflict, nor is it part of a defensive pact. Others say that's just semantics.

NEAL JESSE: Neutrality, to Switzerland, has always been a bit malleable.

NORTHAM: Neal Jesse is a political science professor at Bowling Green State University and a specialist on the neutrality of small states. He says it's always been a little unclear what Swiss neutrality means.

JESSE: Switzerland has always maintained that it is free to take these independent foreign policies as long as it doesn't engage in the conflict itself. But in this instance, you know, basically lining up with EU sanctions, that can't be seen as impartial.

NORTHAM: Tobias Vestner with the Geneva Centre for Security Policy says the question of neutrality didn't come up much over the past two decades in Switzerland.

TOBIAS VESTNER: Switzerland did not really have to take hard stances with regard to neutrality, the world order. International politics were more or less predictable. And with that, neutrality has become something of a - like, a part of Swiss identity but without people really asking themselves what it means.

NORTHAM: Vestner says that's changed. Switzerland saw large demonstrations against Russia after it invaded Ukraine, and there's been an emergence of activism in the country. Vestner says right-wing conservatives believe their country has broken its neutrality. For many others, the issue of neutrality is part of an ongoing conversation now.

VESTNER: The Swiss population - citizens but also politicians - are really struggling now how to deal with this situation and how to respond. So in that sense, this is an important moment, also, for Swiss neutrality.

NORTHAM: And there may be more fuel for that debate. Like other European countries, Switzerland still does trade in Russian wheat and oil, which could still be cut off in the future. Jackie Northam, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF OLAFUR ARNALDS' "OLDUROT (TONTARIO EXTENDED MIX)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.