It is dangerous to exaggerate good offices

Bern’s good offices must not be downplayed or glorified. A realistic view is needed, as the discussion about a protecting power mandate for Kyiv shows.

At the request of President Zelenskiy, Switzerland should look after Ukrainian interests in Russia.

Michael Buholzer / Reuters

It would have been a diplomatic coup for Switzerland. At the request of the government of President Volodymyr Zelensky, she was to represent Ukraine’s interests in Russia. Kyiv severed diplomatic ties with Moscow after the Russian invasion in February. The Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA) offered Switzerland’s good offices at an early stage. For Ukraine, a protecting power mandate was not a priority in the first phase of the war. But in the meantime, Bern and Kyiv have been able to agree on the modalities. The Ukrainian side had high hopes for the mandate. A solution is needed for the numerous children and civilians who have been kidnapped to Russia, the Ukrainian ambassador told the NZZ in an interview.

But Russia doesn’t want to. A Kremlin spokesman told Reuters that Switzerland has lost its status as a neutral country because it has joined the “illegal Western sanctions” against Russia. Switzerland can therefore act neither as a mediator nor as a representative. The argument is not new, even if it is only now making waves abroad. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told his counterpart Ignazio Cassis in a telephone call in March that Switzerland was no longer neutral. Moscow put Switzerland on a list of “unfriendly states” after joining the EU’s sweeping sanctions.

The Kremlin is angry that Switzerland is no longer pursuing the special course it pursued after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. At the time, the Federal Council refrained from adopting the EU’s sanctions against Moscow. However, he enacted measures to ensure that western sanctions were not circumvented via Swiss territory. The cautious approach could no longer be justified by the Russian attack on Ukraine. Legally, nothing changed in Swiss neutrality, even if Bern interpreted it in a new political way.

However, the reason for the Russian refusal seems pretend anyway. The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations does not require a protecting power to be neutral, although this is an advantage. Trust is essential. With the protecting power mandates that it has exercised for Russia in Georgia and vice versa since 2009, Switzerland has proven that it acts discreetly and efficiently. Hardly any other country has so much experience in this area.

The protecting power mandate for Ukraine would have involved elementary consular services, such as visiting civilian prisoners. Such services are not to be underestimated for Ukrainians who are missing loved ones. In the current state of the war, however, even a low-threshold mandate is obviously not opportune for Moscow. Reports of illegal deportations of Ukrainian civilians put Russia in a bad light.

A statement by the Russian embassy in Bern to the Tamedia newspapers raises further questions. As far as it was aware, there had been no contact with official bodies in the Confederation on this issue, the representation stated. Switzerland submitted a draft to Russia, as Ignazio Cassis announced at the beginning of July. The Russians are analyzing this, said the Federal President in an interview with “Le Matin Dimanche”.

However, Russia has also noticed that Switzerland is discussing neutrality. The Federal Council is due to deal with a report on the subject before the end of this month. It is quite possible that Moscow sees an opportunity to influence the debate. The SVP is planning a popular initiative to anchor an orthodox interpretation of neutrality in the constitution. “By participating in the sanctions, Switzerland is now at war,” said SVP doyen Christoph Blocher of the NZZ in March. The party now sees its criticism confirmed by the Russian rejection.

However, Switzerland must not allow itself to be put under pressure. She has to keep declaring her neutrality abroad. Above all, however, a realistic view of good offices is required. In foreign policy, Switzerland tends to make itself smaller or larger than it actually is. The good offices must neither be exaggerated nor belittled. In very few cases can one speak of a mediating role, which Swiss foreign politicians like to talk about.

Nevertheless, Switzerland plays an important role with its protecting power mandates if it acts discreetly and both parties to the conflict agree. In 2020, for example, Bern helped prevent further escalation between Tehran and Washington after the US eliminated an Iranian general. With the help of Switzerland, American citizens who were being held in Iranian prisons on flimsy charges were released. Bern not only received good PR, but was also able to maintain contacts at the highest level in Washington. Bernese diplomacy should continue to offer its tools in the future if they can create added value.

However, good offices are not suitable as the highest foreign policy maxim. Foreign policy is primarily interest-based politics. If the Federal Council had not followed the EU’s sanctions against Russia after a brief hesitation in March, the damage would have been much greater. Switzerland would have found itself in a row with pariah states like Syria. It would have been isolated in the West within a very short time and would have been under great pressure.

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