War in Ukraine: neutral Switzerland re-confirms its position on war material transfers

Mothballed Swiss Leopard 2 tanks will not be passed on to Poland as “this would require a decommissioning and thus a decision by parliament,” armasuisse said on Friday. Keystone / Gaetan Bally

The government on Friday re-confirmed neutral Switzerland’s policy of not supplying arms to conflict zones. It had been facing increasing pressure to review its position in light of the war in Ukraine.

This content was published on June 3, 2022

“The criteria applicable to exports defined in the Federal Law on War Material (FLMG) and the equal treatment resulting from the law of neutrality do not allow Switzerland to approve a request for the transmission of war material of Swiss origin to Ukraine,” the government said in a statementExternal link on Friday.

European countries, seeking to replenish their arms stocks after providing weapons to Ukraine, have submitted requests to Switzerland for the transfer of surplus material from previous or current armed forces stocks.

Neutral Switzerland requires countries that buy Swiss arms to seek permission to re-export them. According to Swiss law, exports of war material must be refused if the country of destination is involved in an international armed conflict. 

“Russia and Ukraine are involved in such a conflict,” said the government.

Switzerland’s State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) recently rejected Denmark's bid to provide 22 Swiss-made Piranha III infantry fighting vehicles to Ukraine. In April, it also vetoed the re-export of 12,400 rounds of Swiss-made ammunition used in anti-aircraft tanks that Germany is sending to Ukraine.

“As the export of war material from Switzerland to Ukraine cannot be authorised due to the equal treatment resulting from the law of neutrality and the provisions of the LFMG, it is not possible to respond favorably to requests from Germany and Denmark for the transfer of war material to Ukraine,” said the government on Friday, confirming the earlier decisions.

Meanwhile, Switzerland's defence procurement office armasuisse said on Friday it had given the go-ahead for Germany to freely dispose of 42 Leopard 2 tanks previously sold back to the German defence group Rheinmetall twelve years ago, “as there are no longer any requirements here”.

However, mothballed Swiss Leopard 2 tanks will not be passed on to Poland as “this would require a decommissioning and thus a decision by parliament,” armasuisse added.

Spare parts and components

In its statement, the Swiss government said deliveries of war material to European arms companies remain possible, however.

“The delivery of war material in the form of assembly elements or spare parts to European armament companies will however remain possible, even if the manufactured war material is likely to be sent to Ukraine,” the government added.

The Federal Council had examined two applications for the export of war material submitted by Swiss companies relating to the delivery of spare parts and assembly elements to arms companies in Germany and Italy. One request was for components for anti-tank rocket launchers and the other for air defence components. 

“Both transactions pose the risk that some of the components will be used in war material subsequently delivered to Ukraine,” the government said.

However, “under current practice”, deliveries of war material in the form of parts and components are in principle permitted, provided that their share in the final product is below a certain value threshold (50% for countries like Italy and Germany), it added.

“The Federal Council has decided to continue this practice, as such exports are compatible with the law of neutrality,” it said.

Under pressure

The government had been facing increasing pressure to review its policy on the transfer of war material and permission to re-export them. Politicians notably from centrist parties argue the weapons would be used to help defend a country against an invasion.

But politicians on the right and the left warn Switzerland’s neutrality might be undermined by the re-export.

Switzerland has parted with past practice and adopted European Union sanctions designed to punish Russia for invading Ukraine, an incursion Moscow describes as a special military operation to disarm and "de-Nazify" Ukraine.

But Swiss neutrality faces its biggest test in decades as a domestic debate rages over how to interpret the policy that kept Switzerland out of both world wars during the 20th century.

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