Why peace capital Geneva is a favoured spot for Russia and US talks

Geneva, dubbed the capital of peace, is a favoured spot for meetings between the two great post-World War II powers and is once again hosting talks between Russia and the United States on Monday.

The "Palais des Nations" building, which houses the United Nations Offices in Geneva. The French-speaking city hosts several other UN agencies and is also home to the Red Cross and dozens of other international organisations.Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

The tranquil Swiss city held the 1985 summit between US president Ronald Reagan and his Soviet counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev.

Geneva also staged last June’s talks between Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Joe Biden.

On Monday, US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and her Russian opposite number, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, will hold much-anticipated discussions on European security and the Ukraine conflict.

Neutral territory
Geneva not only hosts the United Nations — having been the seat of its League of Nations predecessor — and several UN agencies; the French-speaking city is also home to the Red Cross and dozens of other international organisations.

Former Swiss president Guy Parmelin called it the “city of peace” at the Biden-Putin summit last year, showing the Alpine nation could play a role in international relations even during the Covid-19 pandemic.

In the heart of Europe, Switzerland is known for its centuries of neutrality and was never part of the NATO and Warsaw Pact Cold War blocs that divided the continent following World War II.

Indeed, the talks between Reagan and Gorbachev played an important role in thawing the Cold War ice.

Spooks and experts
In 2009 and 2010 in Geneva, Russia and the United States negotiated the New START treaty on reducing their nuclear arsenals.

The city is home to the UN-linked Conference on Disarmament — the only such forum thrashing out arms control and disarmament agreements — and Geneva is therefore brimming with experts in such negotiations.

The city overlooked by Mont Blanc has hosted several meetings between the US and Russian foreign ministers, such as the 2009 summit between Sergei Lavrov and Hillary Clinton.

She offered him a plastic “reset button” to symbolise the revival of relations.

Lavrov and Clinton’s successor John Kerry also met several times for talks in the Calvinist city, on topics such as Syria and Ukraine.

The Russians and Americans, who have large diplomatic representations and a considerable intelligence presence in Geneva, have also organised several meetings there on Syria in recent years.

Since the Biden-Putin summit, Sherman and Ryabkov have held a series of follow-up meetings in Geneva to continue the strategic dialogue and smooth out disputes between Washington and Moscow.

The pair met for the first time at the US mission on July 28 before meeting again at the Russian complex on September 30.

Discretion and security
The two missions are a few hundred metres apart, close to the UN’s Palais des Nations headquarters.

As ever, the area will be under high security on Monday.

Switzerland, and Geneva in particular, is appreciated by diplomats of all stripes for its flexibility and discretion as a host state, as well as for the security it offers.

Such conditions saw the city host talks in the 1990s on the Bosnian civil war, the 2013 Geneva interim agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme and, more recently, on the conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Libya.


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Should flights between Zurich and Geneva be discontinued?

A new proposal seeks to end flights between Switzerland's largest cities. What do you think?

A Swiss air plane sits on the tarmac in Zurich. Photo: MICHAEL BUHOLZER / AFP
A Swiss air plane sits on the tarmac in Zurich. What do you think the rules should be about internal flights? Photo: MICHAEL BUHOLZER / AFP

The short-haul flights between Switzerland’s two international airports have been popular before the pandemic, and still continue to operate, though with reduced number of flights.

They are used mainly by transit passengers connecting to international airports from Zurich and Geneva.

However, delegates at the annual youth session of the parliament now underway in Bern are calling for the discontinuation of the air service, arguing that the 270-km, 30-minute flight leaves a huge carbon footprint, and passengers should travel between the two airports by train.

The Youth Plenum pointed out that 38 percent of emissions in Switzerland are due to transport. 

This argument was already brought up in 2019 by Green and socialist MPs, but the Federal Council responded, then and now, that if these internal flights were to be banned, passengers would not be travelling 3.5 hours by train but connect at other European hubs like Frankfurt or London, which would be detrimental to the environment as well.

The topic of taxing or otherwise restricting internal flights in Switzerland has been regularly considered in Switzerland, with Swiss MPs in 2019 deciding to tax flights. 

READ MORE: `Swiss MPs vote for eco-friendly flight tax

A flight between Zurich and Geneva takes roughly 30 minutes from take-off to landing. This compares to a train journey of just over two and a half hours, or three hours and 15 minutes by car.