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'A new Europe' united against Russia — even neutral Switzerland

Germany, Switzerland and Sweden set aside historic nonaggression policies to join a united European front against Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
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WASHINGTON — A continent that has spent most of the past millennium at war with itself has united against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with Germany reversing its historic policy against sending weapons to conflict zones and even famously neutral Switzerland joining the rest of Europe against Moscow.

“It’s the rebirth of a new Europe,” said Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia. “I’m absolutely shocked, I want to tell you honestly. It’s a historic shift. I think this will have major consequences moving forward for the future of Europe, for the future of the transatlantic alliance, for the future of NATO — just when all of those things were fraying.”

The European Union, for the first time ever, agreed Sunday to directly finance the purchase and delivery of arms, with plans to send more than half a billion dollars worth of military aid to Ukraine as it battles Russian forces in what the president of the European Commission called a “watershed moment.”

Virtually all of European airspace is now closed to Russian aircraft, including private jets. The E.U. also banned Kremlin-backed media outlets and took steps to freeze Russian assets and cut off the country’s access to the global financial system.

French Ambassador to the U.S. Philippe Etienne said on MSNBC Monday that the united front was nothing less than “a turning point in the history of our continent.”

Sweden, which is not part of NATO and has maintained a policy of neutrality through both World Wars and the Cold War, announced Monday it will send 5,000 anti-tank weapons to Ukraine.

The Swedish government said it is the first time the Scandinavian country has sent arms to a country at war since 1939, when it aided its neighbor Finland against a Soviet invasion.

Even Switzerland joined the fray.

Neutrality has been a survival tactic for Switzerland that kept the alpine nation independent since Napoleon. It is not part of the European Union nor NATO.

But bowing to public pressure from its citizens and every party in its parliament but the far-right, the Swiss government announced Monday it will join the EU’s sanction against Russia, bar entry to some high-level Russians with Swiss connections and close Swiss airspace to Russian flights.

The move is significant not only symbolically, but because Switzerland’s infamously secretive banks are a favorite of Russian oligarchs.

“We are in an extraordinary situation where extraordinary measures could be decided,” Swiss President Ignazio Cassis said at a press conference Monday, though he noted that Swiss neutrality remains intact since the country is not sending military aid or getting involved in the fight itself.

Experts say the most significant action, though, may be Germany’s. 

The most powerful country in continental Europe has for years pursued friendlier relations with Moscow and refused to sell weapons to countries involved in armed conflicts as part of a post-World War II doctrine of pacifism. 

“The Russian invasion of Ukraine marks a turning point,” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said in a statement. “It threatens our entire post-war order. In this situation, it is our duty to do our utmost to support Ukraine in defending itself against Vladimir Putin’s invading army.”

Thanks to economic necessity and a sense of historic obligation to atone for the crimes committed by the Nazis, Berlin sought engagement instead of confrontation with Russia.

“There’s an exaggerated perception in German public opinion, I would say a misperception, that engaging with Russia during the Cold War led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Germany did more business with the USSR than other European countries,” said Charles Lichfield, deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s GeoEconomics Center. “That has informed German behavior.”

As recently as last week, Germany not only refused to send its weapons to Ukraine, but it blocked other countries like the Netherlands from sending their own German-made weapons to Kyiv.

But Berlin dramatically reversed course over the weekend, announcing plans to send at least 1,000 anti-tank weapons and 500 Stinger anti-aircraft defense systems to Ukraine, paving the way for virtually the entire continent to join the fight.

“There was a drive towards unity and Germany was an obstacle,” said Lichfield. “It is striking that once the German obstacle was lifted, the EU got in.”

Tobias Vestner, head of the security and law program at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, said the Swiss have long prided themselves on being a safe space for international organizations and dialog, like the summit it hosted last year between President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

But Swiss citizens are beginning to rethink their role in an increasingly globalized world, Vestner said, especially after a pandemic that did not respect international borders.

“This is something we’ve never seen before,” he said. “So I wouldn’t be surprised if you see a change in the way neutrality is interpreted and applied.”