Switzerland decides to expel Russian spies

Defense Minister Viola Amherd seeks to send Putin’s spies back to Moscow.Image: keystone/shutterstock/watson

Russian spies and other foreigners who threaten internal security must in future be systematically expelled: the Council of States decided to this effect very clearly on Monday. A formula nevertheless intrigues elected officials.

05/28/2024, 11:5805/28/2024, 11:59

Othmar von Matt / ch media

Viola Amherd left no doubt about the government’s position. “Espionage, sabotage and subversion of a foreign state endanger Switzerland’s internal security,” declared the President of the Confederation before the Council of States – and thus set the tone: Russian and foreign spies must be expelledas requested by the motion of National Socialist Councilor Fabian Molina.

The Federal Council can take measures at any time to protect internal and external security from espionage activities, as Viola Amherd emphasized:

“The expulsion of intelligence officers is also part of these measures”

According to the President of the Confederation, foreign states must feel that Switzerland is reacting to attacks on its security and that it is defending itself. If Parliament adopts the motion, it will mean that Switzerland is ready to ward off these dangers. “The intention of the Federal Council is to systematically expel intelligence officers who, through their illegal activities, endanger the security of Switzerland or its role as host state.”

The short but clear message from the President of the Confederation convinced the Council of States. He largely approved the motion by 32 votes to 9 with 2 abstentions – even seasoned members of the Council of States were surprised. The decision of the National Council in December was narrower, with 103 votes against 74 and 19 abstentions.

The surprising UDC about-face

The role of the UDC is particularly interesting in this regard. In the National Council, the parliamentary group very clearly rejected the motion: 59 members said no, seven abstained, including such prominent representatives as Thomas Matter and Thomas Hurter. The situation was different on Monday evening at the Council of States. The six members of the SVP spoke in favor of the motion: Marco Chiesa, Esther Friedli, Hannes Germann, Werner Salzmann, Pirmin Schwander and Jakob Stark.

Only Mauro Poggia of the Mouvement Citoyens Genevois, member of the UDC group, rejected the motion. He considered that the security of Switzerland was a task of the Federal Council.

Marco Chiesa, president of the Swiss SVP until March 23, had already approved the motion as chairman of the Foreign Policy Committee of the Council of States – and maintained his position on Monday. Only one thing is problematic in the Molina motion, according to him: the title. It is: “Systematically expel Russian and other foreign spies.” According to him, there is no point in specifically mentioning Russian spies: “It’s an instrumentalization.” The motion should concern spies of all countries.

Marco Chiesa.Keystone

He is not alone in thinking this way. A left-wing states adviser told us, on condition of anonymity, that he was surprised to see the extent to which the motion was accepted, even though it contained the term “Russian spies” in its title. And to add:

“President of the Confederation Viola Amherd seems to know more than she told us”

The member of the Council of States refers to possible Russian espionage activities.

Switzerland does not want to be a “hub for Russian spies”

European states have responded to Vladimir Putin’s war of aggression against Ukraine by expelling nearly 600 spies. With Austria currently embroiled in a Russian espionage scandal, Switzerland risked becoming the central hub of Russian espionage.

218 Russian diplomats were in Switzerland on March 1, 2024, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (FDFA). At least a third of them work for Russian intelligence services, as the Federal Intelligence Service (SRC) writes in its 2023 situation report.

We now need a “zero tolerance policy towards espionage activities”, declared socialist State Councilor Franziska Roth, spokesperson for the commission. As spokesperson for the minority, Petra Gössi (PLR) sees things differently. With the wording “systematically expel”, the motion wants to anchor an automatism. For Petra Gössi, Switzerland would do better to act discreetly in the background as it has done so far.

The President of the Confederation Viola Amherd replied to Petra Gössi that the motion does not lead to any automatism, because “each measure must be examined and decided individually”. And Central States Advisor Andrea Gmür noted: “We have become a hub for Russian spies. We are putting our own security at risk.”

Translated and adapted by Tanja Maeder

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