«Switzerland strongly believes that peace and stability are essential for prosperity and development»: an interview with Colonel Bruno Russi by Maksim Sorokin

October 5, 2023

In the context of the contemporary global powers’ competition and ambivalent geopolitical environment, it is indispensable to refer to the approaches of the States that promote neutrality, diplomatic practices, economic interdependence, and joint engagement in countering global threats. One of the States that manifest such a foreign policy trajectory is Switzerland.

In this regard, PIR Center conducted the interview with Colonel (retired) Bruno Russi, Former Swiss Defence Attaché, currently independent analyst, member of PIR Center Advisory Board since 2023. The interview reveals the Swiss membership within the UN Security Council, the overview of its foreign policy strategy for the period by the end of 2023, and the State’s foreign policy objectives from 2024 onwards.

The interview was conducted by Mr. Maksim Sorokin, PIR Center Information & Publications Program Intern.

Mr. Maksim Sorokin: This year was an essential milestone in the history of Switzerland as the country was first elected as one of the non-permanent members of the UN Security Council. In your opinion, what does it mean for Switzerland, what agendas is the State willing to address throughout its two-year membership, and are there any significant accomplishments so far? In particular, considering that the Swiss relative political neutrality and non-alignment may introduce something new into the commonly harsh and dead-end discussions within the UN Security Council.

Col. Bruno Russi: More than twenty years after becoming a member of the United Nations (2002) the UN General Assembly elected Switzerland in June 2022 as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council for the period 2023/2024. The fact, that Switzerland was elected with 187 out of 190 votes is not only a great honour but also a sign of support of and confidence in Switzerland by the global community. As a small state with an export-oriented economy, Switzerland strongly depends on a global order based on the rule of law, peace, stability as well as open markets. And that is what the United Nations stand for Switzerland strongly believes that peace and stability are essential for prosperity and development. With
its membership in the UNSC Switzerland can bring its experience and credibility in peaceful conflict resolution to the table. The Federal Government has decided on four priorities for Swiss membership in the UNSC:

  1. Promotion of sustainable peace together with prevention of conflict has traditionally been a priority of Swiss foreign policy. The Swiss constitution states that the Swiss confederation “is committed to the long-term preservation of natural resources and to a just and peaceful international order”. As a member of the UNSC Switzerland places great effort to make sure that the UNSC can play and plays its role in conflict prevention. A particular effort is being made in ensuring the respect for Human Rights, protection of minorities and equal participation of women in prevention of conflict and peace-processes.
  1. Protection of civilian population is also part of the humanitarian tradition of the Swiss Confederation. In the UNSC Switzerland is working towards strengthening International Humanitarian Law in armed conflicts. Particular importance is placed on respect for Human Rights, rights of minorities, the protection of refugees in areas of conflict, and also to food security.
  2. Strengthening of efficiency of the UNSC. An effective and efficient UNSC, which enjoys a broadbased support is important for its credibility and this in the interest not only of Switzerland but also the international community. For a long time Switzerland has been working towards improving transparency, accountability, and inclusion of non-members, not least in the framework of the ACTGroup (Accountability, Coherence, and Transparency Group). Important aspects under this title are improvement of the efficiency of the sanctions imposed by the UNSC as well as strengthening the ombudsperson.
  3. Firmly anchoring climate security in the agenda of the UNSC, as this is also a priority of the Swiss Federal Constitution. Apart from being mandated by the Federal Constitution, we are aware that that climate-change and security are closely interlinked. Switzerland holds — together with the United Arab Emirates and Mozambique — the co-presidency of the Informal Expert Group on Climate and Security (IEG) in the UNSC and thus brings our expertise to the table.

As far as accomplishments are concerned, in organisations like the UNSC they can rarely be attributed to one single member, let alone one single person. Accomplishment and successes depend on many factors and particularly on the (political) will of the member states to achieve common goals. Despite “the commonly harsh and dead-end discussions within the Security Council” as you term them, there are some notable achievements of the UNSC in the period, since Switzerland joined:

  • The UNSC in August 2023 renewed the Mandate of the United Nations Mission to Lebanon (UNIFIL) for another year; this may be unspectacular, but it is nevertheless important for the region.
  • The UNSC unanimously supported the renewal of the mandate of the Integrated Office of the UN in Haiti (BINUH) for 12 months, an important decision in view of the difficult security situation in the country.
  • The UNSC discussed the question on how to adapt UN-Peace-Missions to successfully operate in increasingly complex situations and how to strengthen partnerships with regional organisations, as for instance the African Union.
  • In July the UNSC discussed with the commanders of UNMISS (Sudan), UNIFIL (Lebanon) and MONUSCO (Congo) how to improve in their respective missions the protection of the civilian population, who are the majority of the victims in all these conflicts.
  • For the first time since 2017 the UNSC discussed in August 2023 the human rights situation in DPRK.

Another important achievement of the UNSC — and by implication of Switzerland — is in my view, that emerging topics are also being introduced in the official agenda, not least the question of chances, and risks of Artificial Intelligence (AI) for international security and world peace.

A note on Swiss Neutrality: Switzerland has been strictly adhering to the law of neutrality. Within this framework the Federal Council (government) has some discretion in political questions, which is used according to Swiss laws and regulations. But the Swiss understanding of neutrality is not “relative”!

Mr. Maksim Sorokin: In 2020, Switzerland released its foreign policy strategy for the period by the end of 2023. It focuses on peace and security, prosperity, sustainability, and digitalization. Yet the entire period from 2020 to 2023 has been amazingly challenging due to the COVID-19 pandemic and multiple global political crises. Could you please unleash the targets the Swiss Government set back in 2020, and do you think the State managed to accomplish them despite the unstable political and economic environment worldwide?

Col. Bruno Russi: The foreign policy strategy is submitted by the Swiss Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the Federal Council (government) at the beginning of each legislative period and allows the government to continue its wellestablished foreign policy, secure coherence in foreign policy but also to react adequately to changes in the international and global situation. The priorities discussed in the context of the UN will also be recognized in the foreign policy strategy.

The foreign policy strategy is a kind of “mantle-document” enveloping geographical (Near and Middle East, Americas, China, Sub-Sahara-Africa, Southeast Asia) and thematic (Arms-Control, Digital Foreign Policy, International Cooperation, Communication) sub-strategies, which partially have overlapping periods of validity. So Swiss foreign policy strategy must be seen as a process rather than a set of finite states; the next strategy (2024-2027) is already being prepared.

The priorities in the strategy 2020-2023 cover — as you pointed out — the following aspects:

  1. Peace and security. The instruments to implement these priorities are the “Good Offices”, security policy, human rights, and migration policy as well as the humanitarian engagement and science for diplomacy (facilitation of bi- and multilateral cooperation in the field of research). One of the highest priorities in this field is the non-permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council.
  2. Securing prosperity and a high standard of living. Switzerland is committed to a world-economic order based on internationally accepted norms and regulations as well as a functioning financial system. The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) provides solidarity-based contributions to global prosperity. One priority is the consolidation and development of the bilateral path with the European Union, which still requires a lot of work.
  3. Sustainability. In the framework of the UN “Agenda 2030”, Switzerland regards all three dimensions not only as interlinked but also as equally important: environment, economy, and society. The implementation of the “Agenda 2030” is crucial.
  4. Digitalisation. The strategy postulates strengthening of Swiss efforts to consolidate digital governance (through international legal standards, including cybersecurity and digital selfdetermination) and the positioning of Geneva as the leading venue for debates on technology and digitalisation. The ultimate objective being an open and secure digital space based on international law.

COVID-19 brought a lot of changes in international relations and in diplomacy. But problems can, could and must be overcome. On a personal note: at the beginning of 2020, when the epidemic became a pandemic and governments were forced to take highly restrictive measures, I was posted at the Swiss Embassy in Moscow. From one day to the next, diplomatic life came to a near standstill, but not for long: Embassies worldwide had to find a balance between protecting their staff and visitors while keeping essential services (visas, services for Swiss citizens) open. Also the cooperation with the respective ministries, other embassies, and organisations had to be reorganized. This required a lot of creativity on all sides and the determination that the contacts, the single most important assets of diplomacy, must not break off. Digitalisation was an important aspect: many — also personal — contacts could only be kept through digital channels.

The Federal Council on February 3rd 2021 held a meeting dedicated to the question of “Swiss Foreign Policy during the COVID-19 Pandemic” in which he stated that overall the objectives set by the strategy 2020-2023 could so far be accomplished.

In a bit more detail the following objectives could be achieved:

  • the Ministry of Foreign Affairs contributing to the crisis-management not least through the biggest “Flying Home” action in Swiss history;
  • keeping the services of the Swiss embassies open, while protecting the safety and security of its staff and visitors;
  • flexible and comprehensive readjustment of existing aid-programs by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and thus contributing to international crisis-management);
  • successfully taking the seat as a non-permanent member of the USC;
  • inclusion of Switzerland into the crisis-management process of the EU, the close cooperation concerning the necessary measures being important factors in fighting the pandemic worldwide.

The implementation of the “Agenda 2030” of the United Nations remains worrying: according to a recent UN-report only about 12% of the 169 targets are globally on track, close to half are moderately or severely off track and some 30% have either seen no movement or regressed below the 2015 baseline [1]. In Switzerland the “Agenda 2030” is partly on course: a good basis exists in the areas of health and well being, quality education, and peace, justice, and strong institutions. Challenges exist in the areas of responsible consumption and production, climate, energy, and biodiversity, in the areas of gender equality and social cohesion. The fact that sustainability was included in the foreign policy strategy 2020-2023 as well as the sub-strategies strengthened the implementation of the “Agenda 2030” and helps support developing countries in sustainable development as well as reducing poverty.

Finally in digitalisation, the “Geneva Dialogue on Responsible Behaviour in Cyberspace” was continued during the COVID pandemic, albeit in digital form. In 2023 the Geneva Dialogue focusses on cyber norms related to reducing vulnerabilities with the aim to clarify the responsibilities of different stakeholders — especially those of the non-state actors.

Mr. Maksim Sorokin: What are the primary strategic means and goals, specifically in the security field, currently discussed among Switzerland’s high-level political and military establishments to be included in the following foreign policy strategy from 2024? Are any talks or draft paragraphs devoted to the nonproliferation of WMDs and arms control-related issues?

Col. Bruno Russi: In 2019 a working group published the report: “Foreign Policy Vision Switzerland 2028” but clearly as a vision not a strategy. Despite the overwhelming changes in the security field (although the report already in 2019 speaks of a “fragmented world increasingly shaped by power-politics”) many of its postulations (e.g. engagement for a peaceful and stable world; engagement for Human Rights; using the potential of innovations while mastering the challenges from new and emerging technologies, overcoming climate change and environmental degradation, etc.) are still as valid as ever and show the continuity of Swiss foreign policy.

The war in Ukraine, however, brought a turning-point also for Switzerland; the German Chancellor spoke even of a “Zeitenwende” (Change of an era). The Swiss Armed Forces in August published with “Objectives and Strategy” their view of how the Swiss Armed Forces should develop in the middle and long-term. The document includes a strategy on how to achieve these objectives. Its main point is that capabilities, organisation, training, and infrastructure should be consequently focussed on defence. International cooperation (without compromising neutrality) particularly in the area of training and exchange of experience has become more important. At the same time, parliament substantially augmented the defence budget.

In any new Swiss foreign policy-strategy, the engagement for a peaceful and stable world will certainly be of prime importance. The instruments to implement this objective continue to be the bi- and multilateral missions but also the Swiss engagement in the United Nations Security Council, the Good Offices with Geneva playing an important role as venue for negotiations, consultations, conferences, etc. The aspect of solidary also remains important: humanitarian engagement to alleviate need and poverty around the world, foster respect for human rights, promote democracy and conserve the environment. For the duration of the respective sub-strategy (2021-2024) the Swiss parliament and Federal Council allocated 11.25 bn Swiss Francs (12.5 bn US$) for humanitarian purposes, a considerable sum out of a total annual budget of 80 bn CHF.

In view of the increasing complexity, fragmentation and polarization of the strategic environment, conflict prevention will rank high on the agenda.

An important factor continues to be the Swiss engagement for Human Rights, bilaterally as well as in multilateral organisations. Behind this engagement stands the conviction, that peace, prosperity, and sustainable development are closely interlinked with the implementation of Human Rights.

In 2022 the Federal Council for the first time published a Strategy on Arms Control and Disarmament, valid until 2025. The environment for arms control, disarmament, and non-proliferation has become much more complex with growing strategic polarisation and many important agreements and treaties either weakened or terminated (ABM, INF, Open Skies, etc.). New weapon systems, technological advances and new methods of warfare bring additional and new challenges, Artificial Intelligence, Autonomous Weapons Systems, Cyberthreats, just to name a few.

Switzerland has considerable experience and expertise in arms control, disarmament, and nonproliferation, particularly in the normative, humanitarian, and scientific-technical fields. With this background, Switzerland can play a role in addressing the problems and thus contributing to global and European security. The Strategy defines five priority areas: nuclear weapons, chemical and biological weapons, conventional weapons, autonomous weapon systems and cyber and space.

Priority fields of activity will not only be the comprehensive implementation of existing agreements but also adapting arms control according to new requirements, strengthening of transparency and confidence-building measures, as well as prevention of proliferation of WMD. In the nuclear field Switzerland engages in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) as well as in the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) to halt proliferation. Although the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) is not yet in force, Switzerland already cooperates in the international verification system of the CTBTO. In the field of biological and chemical weapons, priority lies with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). Particular efforts are made to strengthen OPCW, reinforce international norms and confidence building measures, and support OPCW investigations (not least through Spiez laboratory, listed under the UN Secretary-General’s Mechanism). An aspect of growing importance for arms control promoted by Switzerland is the dialogue with science and industry on chances and risks of new technologies in this field.

Although the Strategy on Arms Control and Disarmament is valid until 2025, most of its elements will be kept in future strategies, given their importance.

Mr. Maksim Sorokin: Today, global powers like the US, China, Russia, and the EU have an incremental tendency toward increasing interest in deepening cooperation with African countries. Is there a specific interest in the African continent in Switzerland, and if so, how is it manifested, and what are the strategic objectives of Switzerland in the region?

Col. Bruno Russi: Switzerland has a clear, direct, and, not least, security related interest in the stability and prosperity of Africa as well as in the economic recovery of the individual countries. At the same time it also identifies chances for Swiss business cooperation employing the African potential of well-trained young workforce. This demands a differentiated approach with priorities according to regional needs and requirements, reflected in two strategy documents: one on the Near and Middle East (MENA-Strategy) and the other on Sub-Saharan Africa.

The MENA-Strategy continues the long-established Swiss engagement in the priority domains conflict prevention, humanitarian aid, and development cooperation and focusses on:

  • Measures to prevent political instability, armed conflicts, violation of human rights, economic crises, deficiencies in good governance and fighting unemployment. These measures help to reduce pressure for irregular migration.
  • Of great importance from a humanitarian standpoint is the protection of refugees and migrants by safeguarding humanitarian standards.
  • And finally in order to counter irregular migration the establishment of an effective migrationmanagement based on international legal standards is essential. Switzerland, apart from multilateral efforts also seeks to establish migration agreements with individual states.

The objective of the strategy on Sub-Saharan Africa is a broad cooperation with African partners based on an equal footing. Priority domains of cooperation are civilian and military peace support, conflict prevention; protection of human rights and respect for humanitarian law, as well as providing humanitarian aid, where needed. In order to effectively counter the causes of irregular migration, support for the improvement of primary care of the population (food, medicine, etc.), promotion of women in decision-making, support for good-governance, responsible resource-management, and political transition processes according to democratic standards are important fields of engagement.

Economically stronger and dynamic countries of Africa will be supported by intensifying economic relations with Switzerland, creation of a positive basis for trade and investment, promotion of responsible corporate governance, support the fight against corruption, promote the use of the chances from digital technologies and also support for Swiss businesses in African states.

But the focus is not only on individual states, Switzerland also cooperates with important regional organisations in particular the African Union and regional economic organisations (African Development Bank) in order to promote economic prosperity as a solid basis for peace and security. Also in the multilateral field conflict prevention and climate protection are important aspects.

[1] Progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals: Towards a Rescue Plan for People and Planet. Report of the Secretary-General (Special Edition) // General Assembly. Economic and Social Council 2023 session. 25 July 2022-26 July 2023. Agenda Items 5(a) and 6. URL: https://sdgs.un.org/sites/default/files/2023-04/SDG_Progress_Report_Special_Edition_2023_ADVANCE_UNEDITED_VERSION.pdf

Key words: Blitz; Global Security; European Security; Africa