Relocating part of International Geneva to Ukraine: A breakthrough idea

Relocating part of International Geneva to Ukraine: A breakthrough idea

Theodor H. Winkler


What if part of the aptly named Maison de la Paix in the heart of International Geneva were to relocate to war-torn Ukraine? It hosts three Swiss-funded centres of international reputation: the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining, and the Geneva Centre for Security Sector Reform. But remotely providing support to Ukraine from Geneva is insufficient for the monumental task at hand. A partial relocation of resource and expertise is called for, argues former Swiss Ambassador Theodor Winkler, one of the centres’ main initiators, in a thought-provoking guest essay for The G|O. Under some conditions, such a proposal, while carrying high risks, would be looked at favorably, the Swiss government tells The G|O.

The war in Ukraine has been raging since February 24, with no end in sight. There have been no direct negotiations between the adversaries toward any form of peace settlement. There have not even been pauses in the fighting. Thousands have died, millions have been displaced. Humanitarian interventions have been sporadic, with a cold winter approaching.

What can Switzerland do? As a small, neutral country, its possibilities are limited. It has already joined the European Union in enforcing sanctions, although a total freeze on Russian assets remains problematic.

In this context, Theodor Winkler’s initiative, published here, to relocate to Kyiv part of three Geneva-based centres with recognized expertise and operational potential is highly innovative. (Full disclosure: I have known and worked with Dr Winkler for a number of years until his retirement.)

A former Ambassador and high-level official in both the Swiss Defense and Foreign Ministries, Teddy—as he is affectionately known—has been at the forefront of numerous successful Swiss initiatives. One of his enduring convictions is that, based on the model of the Swiss force that provides trained dogs for rescue missions in disaster-struck areas, Switzerland should also have a rapid reaction force to respond to political, economic, and military disasters. If the war in Ukraine is not that, what is it?

Winkler’s proposal is innovative, but more importantly it is pragmatic, immediately actionable, and financially affordable. It would be the ultimate validation of the centres’ vocation and raison d’être.

The Geneva Observer presents Dr Winkler’s guest essay in the hope that its widespread diffusion will encourage discussion and further help the Swiss Government and others to make useful contributions to alleviate suffering and to bring some form of conclusion to this terrible tragedy.

-Daniel Warner


By Theodor H. Winkler

Following the Lugano and Berlin conferences, Switzerland is in the process of defining its support for Ukraine over the coming years. The needs are enormous. First, there is the urgent need for modern weaponry, which poses a problem for Swiss neutrality. Second, there is Ukraine’s demand that the funds of the oligarchs are not only frozen but sequestered by the international financial markets. Switzerland will have little choice but to follow what the international community decides on the matter. And thirdly, there are the large sums of money that will be needed to rebuild the war-torn country. Estimates here range from 350 to 850 billion USD.

Given this huge pile of problems, Switzerland should—together with Ukraine—choose specific centres of gravity that provide the Swiss contribution with direction and give it a clear thrust. It seems to me that we would be well advised, if we take this approach, to focus on the fight against corruption and related issues, to establish the infrastructure for coping with the explosive remnants of war (mines, duds, cluster ammunitions, and booby traps), and to train the highly professional personnel Ukraine needs to strengthen its relations with the Western world.

These three issues belong to the core competencies of the three centres created by the Confederation in Geneva: The Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP), the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining (GICHD), and the Geneva Centre for Security Sector Reform (DCAF)—all housed in the Maison de la Paix.

The GICHD is the world’s leading address in humanitarian demining. To rebuild the Ukrainian economy, the clearing of the vast explosive remnants of war will be an absolute precondition—as it will be also for a return of the refugees and internally displaced persons. The Centre should develop for the Ukrainians an “Integrated Management System for Mine Action” (as it has done in some 60 other countries) that would link all the data and information necessary into one system, rendering the mine clearing operation much more efficient—and therefore less costly in terms of victims and sacrifice. It should, furthermore, assist Ukraine in any other form needed in dealing with the problem, providing related Swiss projects to the Ukrainians.

DCAF, which has 22 years of cooperation with Ukraine to its record, should explore with Kyiv ways and means to assist Ukraine in fighting corruption—particularly in the security sector. President Zelensky once made that very topic a key theme in the TV series in which he played the fictional President. He is certainly aware of how critical the issue is. There are the related issues of the political control over the armed forces and of how to assure the total integrity of attorney general inquiries into war crimes. DCAF has already established the mutual trust with the Ukrainian authorities that is indispensable for such highly sensitive issues. There is no organization better qualified to help and engage in close assistance.

Finally, GCSP, under the directorship of ambassador Thomas Greminger—the former Secretary General of the OSCE, who knows Ukraine extremely well—is ideally positioned to offer the country all the necessary training and analytical support in international security policy and the preparation of diplomats, officers, and civil servants for postings abroad.

Critically, providing support remotely from Geneva is insufficient for the task at hand, and partial relocation of resources and expertise is called for. The three centres should, together with the Swiss Embassy, open in Kyiv an “Integrated Implementation Centre” to support their activities and to integrate them with other follow-up activities to Lugano.

The use of Geneva’s assets would facilitate the task of defining a clear strategy that can be communicated to the Swiss parliament and public, is fully compatible with any definition of neutrality, and would be highly cost-efficient. It would also encourage the Bern administration to make better use of the three world-class institutions they have created as part of international Geneva. There has been, in the last few years, a lack of such cooperation. On the contrary, an attitude has developed towards the centres in which the Foreign Ministry and the Defence Ministry have not integrated them into operational planning—they have looked at them not as a tool but as institutions.

It is clearly in Geneva’s—and Switzerland’s—strong interest that this changes. The Federal Council should use the opportunity of its Ukraine program to highlight institutions that are world-class, ready to go at short notice, trusted by Ukraine and our Western partners, and highly experienced in delicate fieldwork.

We should also put the necessary money where our mouth is. A major thrust by the three centres should be supported by 50 million CHF per year for an initial period of three years. We must avoid the instinctive reaction of the administration to do—and spend—as little as possible. We need results, international recognition, and, above all, strong support for Ukraine, the country under the brutal Russian onslaught.



Following a request for comment on Dr. Winkler’s proposal, this is what a spokesperson for the Swiss government emailed The Geneva Observer:

“Even though the war is raging, it is never too early to prepare a reconstruction process to give hope, clarify needs and responsibilities, and ensure the confidence necessary for the process to run smoothly. We must prepare all the available tools and be ready when the time comes. Mobilizing the expertise of the Geneva centres is perfectly in line with the inclusive principles of Lugano. Launching a project like that proposed by Mr. Winkler while the war is still raging is ambitious. It is not impossible, but it carries high risks. Under the present circumstances, such a project would have to be monitored very closely to consider the situation’s evolution. This would be a major challenge. The procedure must clearly respect the principle ‘form follows function follows needs.’ In other words, the centres must first determine, in collaboration with the Ukrainian authorities, the needs for the centres’ services. On the basis of these needs, a proposal for coordinated action could be developed. […] The development of the activities of the Geneva centres in Ukraine by prioritizing core contributions is an interesting idea. […] Such a project should be part of an overall strategic analysis of the needs of the Ukrainian authorities and population and the added value of the centres. Emanating from the centres and in close cooperation with the Ukrainian authorities, such a proposal would certainly be looked upon favorably.”

The Swiss government's response to The G|O has been edited for length and clarity. The translation from French to English is ours.