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NATO and the neutrals

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and the ministers of foreign affairs of Finland and Sweden meet the media after the two countries signed the group’s Accession Protocols in July.

With Finland and Sweden poised to join the international alliance, three other countries are also reconsidering their longstanding neutrality

The Russian invasion of Ukraine brought North Atlantic Treaty Organization nations closer together and almost all of them provided military and humanitarian assistance to the defenders. Nearly all NATO members also subsequently increased their defence spending. Germany, for example, almost doubled its expenditure; Canada, meanwhile, has indicated it will boost the percentage of its gross domestic product devoted to armed forces from 1.36 per cent in 2021 to 1.59 in five years. 

And historically neutral Finland and Sweden are set to join NATO once the alliance ratifies an early July endorsement of the prospective members—while Turkey originally objected to adding the two countries, it stood down after the trio signed a new extradition memorandum. 

Largely unnoticed among those headlines, three other historically neutral European nations—Switzerland, Austria and Ireland—began public debates on their own relations with NATO. The countries already belong to NATO’s Partnership for Peace programme (PfP), which allows them to co-operate with the alliance and participate in its operations as they choose. None, however, had made moves to consider full membership—until Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.

Switzerland has been a neutral state since the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, and it successfully remained so during the two world wars and the Cold War. Nonetheless, the Swiss government joined the European Union (EU) in imposing retaliatory sanctions on Russia and the country’s notoriously secretive banks have frozen about US$2.2 billion in Russian assets. 

At the same time, some Swiss military leaders have called for their government to start taking some responsibility for Europe’s security. So, too, have a few politicians. Damien Cottier, a liberal member of the Swiss parliament, said his country has long believed that being amid NATO member nations guaranteed their protection. This, he wrote, is “a dangerous pipe dream. Our country cannot be a free rider when it comes to European security.” 

Switzerland may be isolated from Russia geographically, but it’s beginning to feel the need to move under NATO’s promise of mutual security.

Still, NATO membership remains unpopular among the Swiss with just 33 per cent for it. But public support for closer co-operation with the alliance has grown since Moscow’s attack on Ukraine, and most Swiss—56 per cent according to a poll in April—now want to get as close to NATO as their country’s constitution will allow. The war in Ukraine was a shock wave for Switzerland, and President Ignazio Cassis has stated that neutrality was not “dogma.”

Switzerland, however, is unlikely to go as far as Sweden and Finland and join NATO. The Swiss constitution indicates the country’s government must safeguard neutrality, and the principle remains an essential element of its foreign policy. The country’s military is small, with only about 20,000 regulars and a militia 10 times that size. Still, the defence ministry favours increasing co-operation with the alliance. That is a sea change.

Something similar is happening in Austria. Occupied by the Allies after the Second World War, its neutrality was adopted by treaty in 1955 to get foreign troops out of the country. Austrian neutrality prohibits three things: military engagement in foreign conflicts, the permanent stationing of foreign troops and membership in a military alliance. Nonetheless, with the strength of its armed forces roughly equal to that of Switzerland, Austria cooperates with NATO through the PfP. It has also imposed sanctions on Russia and is increasing its military spending.

Chancellor Karl Nehammer said earlier this year that Austria has no intention of changing its policy. Shortly before travelling to Moscow in April to implore Russian President Vladimir Putin to end the invasion of Ukraine, Nehammer stated that “Austria was neutral, Austria is neutral and Austria will remain neutral.” 

Some three quarters of the country’s population agree with that stance. But there are signs of change. Shortly after the Chancellor’s comments, 50 prominent Austrians raised the issue in an open letter. They called on the Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen to independently examine whether the country’s policy of neutrality was still appropriate. What’s happening in Vienna is a discussion on how neutrality will be interpreted and implemented. That, too, is a sign of how the war in Ukraine has impacted Austrian opinion.

Switzerland IS beginning to feel the need to move under NATO’s mutual security guarantee.

The war has affected Ireland, too. In June, Micheál Martin, the taoiseach (or prime minister), said “we need to reflect on military non-alignment in Ireland and our military neutrality. We are not politically neutral.” Martin went on to say that “I do think we need a reflection on it, but it needs to be informed and without division. For the moment I’m focused on maintaining the unity of purpose that is very evident in Ireland in relation to our overall approach to Ukraine.”

As a member of the EU, Dublin imposed sanctions on Russia for its action in Ukraine, but Martin’s remarks, qualified as they were, still amounted to a major change in what had been a longstanding stance on staying out of NATO. That opinion, however, is not yet one reflected by the Irish public at large. One recent poll reported 70 per cent were against membership in the alliance. Few other politicians seemed enthused by the idea.

Ireland would have little to contribute to NATO militarily. Its regular and reserve forces total less than 13,000 personnel, its equipment is rudimentary and its defence budget is about 1.1 billion euros. Joining the alliance would certainly lead to demands for a bigger military and increased defence spending—moves that, at the very least, would give Irish politicians and voters pause.

None of these three neutral states are likely to join NATO. But that they are even discussing doing so is a major change. And it’s likely their links to the PfP will strengthen. Putin’s war of aggression has changed Europe. The Russian leader clearly failed to consider all the implications of his “special military operation.” 


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