"I was thinking of a hashtag, 'Even Switzerland,'" Ambassador Jacques Pitteloud said half jokingly, noting that U.S. President Joe Biden had uttered this phrase in his State of the Union address as he highlighted the international reaction to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
On February 28, the Swiss Federal Council announced Switzerland was joining a growing list of countries that included the European Union and the United States in imposing unprecedented economic sanctions on Russia. The Swiss decision caught the world's attention.
"Every time when sanctions are decided upon by the EU or the U.S., they approach their friends and allies and ask them to participate. Sometimes we say no, sometimes we say yes," Bern's top representative in Washington said in an interview at the ambassador's residence. "This time we said yes."
Switzerland remains neutral
Nonetheless, "Switzerland remains neutral and will remain neutral for the foreseeable future," Pitteloud emphasized, brushing off global headlines that greeted the announcement from Bern with cries of "Switzerland ditches neutrality."
"We're still neutral. At the same time, we're putting additional emphasis on something else that is very important to small countries like Switzerland – the respect of international law," Pitteloud explained. "International law may not be that important for big countries, but for small countries, it is a matter of survival."
He described his nation's emphasis on international law as "another pillar" of Swiss foreign policy.
"We insist on international law because we know it is a matter of survival for us; so the moment we witnessed such a massive violation of international law, an aggression that we hadn't seen in Europe since the Second World War, this is why this time the Swiss government decided to go further in terms of adopting sanctions," Pitteloud said.
Russia's invasion of Ukraine is "a direct attack against everything we hold dear" and poses a threat to countries far beyond Ukraine's borders, the ambassador said. "It's also important to our own security."
Switzerland's long-held position of neutrality had meant that the country often sat out conflicts and disputes in "the big, outer world," as Pitteloud put it. Other times it supported sanctions without directly participating, by making sure that sanctions were not undermined through the Swiss financial system, he said.
"Every time there was this leeway in the political interpretation in terms of how far we want to go or how restrictive we want to go in interpreting neutrality," Pitteloud said.
In this case, he explained, Switzerland has adopted a very restrictive interpretation, which stipulates that a neutral country will not participate in a military conflict unless it is attacked itself, and would not facilitate arms delivery to parties involved in a conflict.
Swiss sanctions now fully mirror EU
On Wednesday, Switzerland announced further sanctions against more than 200 Russian individuals and entities, fully matching the sanctions imposed by the European Union, of which Switzerland is not a member.
Pitteloud thinks the debate over EU membership could go on within his country for another few decades. "Ultimately, it's for the people to decide. In Switzerland, we vote on everything," he noted, with a sense of delight in his country's democratic system.
Asked about media reports that Russian President Vladimir Putin's domestic partner and their children are "hiding out in a Swiss chalet," Pitteloud replied that the world's rich and powerful often come to Switzerland for medical treatment.
"This has happened in the past, this might have happened with quite a few people, we're very discreet about that, because there's no reason to comment," he said.
"Personally I have no indication whatsoever of members of the Russian president's family or, let's say, close friends, being in Switzerland, even less so with a Swiss passport as was argued in one of the articles; I would not be aware of that."
Switzerland, an Alpine nation in the center of Europe, has been so determined to avoid international entanglements that it became a member of the United Nations only in 2002. Twenty years later, the country has put in a bid for a non-permanent seat at the U.N. Security Council for 2023-24.
"The matter of joining the U.N. Security Council prompted a very heated debate in Switzerland," Pitteloud said. "Because by being on the Security Council, it means you have to take even more positions than if you're just in the General Assembly."
But he said the bid is backed by both the Swiss government and parliament, and is seen in Bern as "an extraordinary opportunity to once again stress multilateralism, respect for international law, respect of procedures enshrined in the U.N. system. We think we can be an additional voice in stressing the importance of international values."