Ukraine: How a conflict in Eastern Europe would impact Switzerland

Ukraine: How a conflict in Eastern Europe would impact Switzerland

With around 100.000 Russian soldiers lining the country’s border with Ukraine, and a further 30.000 said to be waiting near the Belarusian border, geopolitical analysts around the world are desperately seeking a solution to the flare-up in tensions between Russia and Ukraine. But, if the worst were to happen and the pair were to head for conflict, what would this mean for Switzerland?

What is going on between Russia and Ukraine?

Following years of back-and-forth between pro-Russian and pro-Western politicians in Ukraine and widespread anger at the election of pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych in 2013, a series of demonstrations known as the Euromaidan protests culminated in the eventual overthrow of the Ukrainian leader in early 2014. This sparked the conflict which broke out in 2014, resulting in the Russian annexation of the Crimean peninsula, and the creation of large separatist movements in Ukraine's Donbass region. 

Russia has repeatedly accused NATO and “the West” more broadly of creating instability in the region, and has asked NATO to give assurances that Ukraine will never join the organisation, while Ukraine has expressed concerns over Russia's motives in the region and has called on Western Europe and the US for more military support. More than 10.000 lives have already been lost in the conflict in Donbass, which has been going on for more than seven years, and analysts predict that a flare-up in 2022 could result in a further 50.000 casualties. 

Unfortunately, the evidence that Russia is planning some sort of military intervention is mounting, with intelligence experts suggesting a strike could happen as soon as February 16. So far, satellite images show hundreds of thousands of Russian troops amassing near the Ukrainian border, temporary hospitals being constructed for military casualties and significant movement of vehicles and weapons to the region. Despite this, both sides have expressed a willingness to de-escalate tensions with dialogue, though so far, little progress appears to have been made on this front. 

How has Switzerland responded to past conflict between the pair?

Russia and Switzerland have had a stable and peaceful bilateral relationship in modern times. The Swiss Ambassador to Russia, Krystyna Marty Lang, described Russia as "one of the [country’s] most important partners in matters of peace, security and economic development” in 2021, and the pair are cooperative trade partners.

In response to the 2014 Russia-Ukraine conflict, Switzerland took the decision to blacklist several Russian individuals to prevent them from doing business in Switzerland - notably a much more subtle response compared with many of Switzerland’s European neighbours, perhaps reflecting the comparatively friendly relations between the two nations. 

Switzerland would support economic sanctions on Russia

Despite Switzerland’s scaled-back response to the previous conflict in eastern Ukraine, the Swiss government would likely still support the implementation of economic sanctions on Russia in response to military aggression. According to Laurent Goetschel, professor of Political Science at the University of Basel, the country would be likely to vote in favour of economic sanctions, “Depending on how the situation develops." 

One of the key arguments made by a number of Switzerland's allies in favour of economic sanctions is that they are useful to both deter Russia from amassing more troops near the border and to also show support for Ukraine. The US, UK and EU have announced that “significant sanctions” would hit the Russian economy in the case of a conflict. 

Swiss energy supply may be under threat 

Think your utility bill has been high this winter? Think again. With Russian gas and oil being fundamental to many European nations’ energy supply, homeowners in Switzerland could see their energy bills skyrocket due to sanctions and supply constraints. Switzerland relies on imported natural gas to fulfil a significant proportion of its energy needs, and may be forced to look elsewhere to keep prices down and prevent an electricity shortage

Given that Switzerland has recently stepped back from negotiations with the EU on an Institutional Framework Agreement, and relations between the pair have become strained, it is possible that Switzerland may have to temporarily look further afield if it cannot find a replacement for Russian energy over the winter

Food supply in Switzerland could also become a concern

Aside from energy, Eastern Europe is also important for Switzerland’s national food supply. With an annual volume of 60 million tons of wheat, Ukraine and Russia make up around 30 percent of the world’s wheat production, sparking some concern that Switzerland’s supply could be short if the pair become embroiled in a crisis. 

There is no need for fear just yet, though. Federal Office for National Economic Supply (BWL) spokesperson Thomas Grünwald said that Switzerland should be able to manage a short-term supply shock by planning ahead and using reserves. "Switzerland always takes precautions to compensate for such shortages," Grünwald confirmed. 

Switzerland may choose to take in refugees fleeing the conflict

Inevitably. with the arrival of military conflict in Europe, will come the need to help civilians caught in the crossfire. In the past, Switzerland has committed to helping those suffering in various conflicts around the world, and has acted as a safe haven for refugees from Afghanistan, Syria, Eritrea, Somalia, Iraq and former Yugoslavia. 

According to Nicolas Hayoz, a professor of Political Science at the University of Fribourg, "If a large part of Ukraine is occupied, we must expect a huge wave of refugees in Switzerland... The war in the eastern European regions of Ukraine, in Donetsk and Luhansk, has primarily led to displacement within Ukraine so far." If tensions boil over, Switzerland should expect to take in more refugees as the conflict erupts.

Emily Proctor


Emily Proctor

Emily grew up in the UK before moving abroad to study International Relations and Chinese. She then obtained a Master's degree in International Security and gained an interest in journalism....

Read more



Leave a comment