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Swiss history: How the army attacked Liechtenstein three times — by mistake 

Switzerland has been neutral for the past 500 years. But that didn’t stop it from “invading” its tiny neighbour three times in the past 35 years. How did this happen?

Swiss history: How the army attacked Liechtenstein three times — by mistake 
Only a footbridge separates Switzerland from Liechtenstein. Photo by Fabrice Coffrini / AFP

Liechtenstein lies very – and, it would seem, dangerously —close to Switzerland. Where a border should be between the two Alpine nations there is only a footbridge, which may explain why the Swiss military made its way into the minuscule, 23-kilometre-long principality with such ease.

The first incident in the ‘oops…sorry’ category happened in 1985. During a training exercise in the proper use of ground-to-air-missiles, Swiss artillery launched rockets straight into Liechtenstein, igniting a massive forest fire along with a diplomatic snafu.

At first the Swiss claimed that strong winds, which were blowing in the region on that day, were to blame for the misdirected launch. But in the end, the government paid several million francs for damages inflicted on Liechtenstein’s forests.

Seven years later, Switzerland struck again.

Army recruits were on maneuvers when they received orders to set up an observation post in Triesenberg. The soldiers obliged, until local residents started to ask what the Swiss military unit was doing in their town. It was only then that the recruits — and their commanders — realised that Triesenberg is located in Liechtenstein.

Fast-forward to a rainy night in 2007, when 170 troops armed with rifles (but apparently not with a GPS) stumbled into Liechtenstein. They marched on for more than a kilometre until someone exclaimed, “Hey, this isn’t Switzerland”! (“Hey, das isch nöd d Schwiiz”)!

At this point the soldiers turned around and hot-footed it back home.

In all fairness, it is difficult to tell Switzerland apart from Liechtenstein, even in broad daylight. Rural areas in both countries look the same, and people in both nations speak the same Swiss German dialect and use Swiss franc as their currency.

Imagine how much more complicated it is to distinguish one country from another when it’s dark and raining.

According to reports, the incident did not have any political repercussions.

“It’s not like they stormed over here with attack helicopters or something”, Markus Amman, Liechtenstein’s spokesman for the Interior, remarked at the time.

“These things happen”, he added philosophically, no doubt referring to the two previous episodes when the mighty Swiss army came uninvited.

READ MORE: Swiss history: How the Swiss army refused to decommission its pigeons

 

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NATO

KEY POINTS: Five things to know about Sweden and Nato

After decades of staying out of military alliances, Finland and Sweden are about to decide whether to apply to join Nato, as a deterrent against aggression from their Eastern neighbour Russia. Here are five things you need to know.

KEY POINTS: Five things to know about Sweden and Nato

The Nordic neighbours are expected to act in unison, with both expressing a desire for their applications to be submitted simultaneously if they decide to go that route.

A historic U-turn

For decades, a majority of Swedes and Finns were in favour of maintaining their policies of military non-alignment. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24 sparked a sharp U-turn. The change was especially dramatic in Finland, which shares a
1,300-kilometre (800-mile) border with Russia. After two decades during which public support for Nato membership remained
steady at 20-30 percent, polls now suggest that more than 75 percent of Finns are in favour.

During the Cold War, Finland remained neutral in exchange for assurances from Moscow that it would not invade. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, Finland remained militarily non-aligned.

Sweden, meanwhile, adopted an official policy of neutrality at the end of the Napoleonic wars of the early 19th century. Following the end of the Cold War, the neutrality policy was amended to one of military non-alignment.

Close Nato partners

While remaining outside Nato, both Sweden and Finland have formed ever-closer ties to the Alliance. Both joined the Partnership for Peace programme in 1994 and then the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council in 1997. Both countries are described by the Alliance as some of “Nato’s most active partners” and have contributed to Nato-led missions in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Sweden’s and Finland’s forces also regularly take part in exercises with Nato countries and have close ties with Nordic neighbours Norway, Denmark and Iceland — which are all Nato members.

Sweden’s military

For a long time, Swedish policy dictated that the country needed a strong military to protect its neutrality. But after the end of the Cold War, it drastically slashed its defence spending, turning its military focus toward peacekeeping operations around the world.

In 1990, defence spending accounted for 2.6 percent of GDP, compared to 1.2 percent in 2020, according to the government.

Mandatory military service was scrapped in 2010 but reintroduced in 2017 as part of Sweden’s rearmament following Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. Combining its different branches, the Swedish military can field some 50,000 soldiers.

In March 2022, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Sweden announced it would increase spending again, targeting two percent of GDP “as soon as possible”.

Finland’s military

While Finland has also made some defence cuts, in contrast to Sweden it has maintained a much larger army since the end of the Cold War. The country of 5.5 million people now has a wartime strength of 280,000 troops plus 600,000 reservists, making it significantly larger than any of its Nordic neighbours despite a population half the size of Sweden’s.

In early April, Finland announced it would further boost its military spending, adding more than two billion euros ($2.1 billion) over the next four years. It has a defence budget of 5.1 billion euros ($5.4 billion) for 2022.

Memories of war

While Sweden has sent forces to international peacekeeping missions, it has not gone to war for over 200 years. The last conflict it fought was the Swedish-Norwegian War of 1814. It maintained its neutral stance through the two World Wars.

Finland’s memories of warfare are much fresher. In 1939, it was invaded by the Soviet Union. Finns put up a fierce fight during the bloody Winter War, which took place during one of the coldest winters in recorded history. But it was ultimately forced to cede a huge stretch of its eastern Karelia province in a peace treaty with Moscow.

A 1948 “friendship agreement” saw the Soviets agree not to invade again, as long as Finland stayed out of any Western defence cooperation. The country’s forced neutrality to appease its stronger neighbour coined the term “Finlandization”.

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