Switzerland rethinks neutrality, considers weapons exports amid Ukraine crisis

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Swiss lawmakers are rethinking what it means to be neutral amid Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine — although change might come too late for Kyiv. 

In Bern, sending weapons doesn’t just depend on a political decision from the top, but also legal issues and a secular commitment to neutrality.

A small country surrounded by great powers, neutrality is baked into Switzerland’s history: The mountainous country has been neutral for close to five centuries, while being recognized in international law as an unaligned state since 1815.

Under its current legal framework, Switzerland may not directly deliver weapons to warring countries, nor is it allowed to re-export; so the Swiss government would need to directly approve any supply of weapons to Ukraine.

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And now, politicians from across the spectrum are considering just that.

Among those pushing for change is liberal politician Thierry Burkart, whose proposed motion to free up weapons exports will be debated on Friday: “We are neutral and will remain so, but in the current situation we are in fact preventing our Western partners from supporting Ukraine,” he told POLITICO. 

Ukrainian officials have also been urging the Swiss government to review its position. “I ask Switzerland to supply defense weapons that protect people’s lives,” Kyiv Mayor Vitaly Klitschko said last month. “When it comes to human rights, to life and death, to war and peace, you cannot be neutral.”

Bern has blocked delivery of weapons and ammunition to Ukraine from several European countries, leading to challenging bottlenecks, experts say.

To address that, Burkart, who leads the liberal Free Democratic Party, put forward a motion at the national level in June 2022. It would allow arms exports to Ukraine via “countries that share Swiss values” without having to ask for the government’s express permission. 

On Friday, the Council of State’s security committee will discuss Burkart’s initiative — which may garner support across parties.

Conservative Werner Salzmann, president of the committee, said he’d agree to the initiative if certain conditions are fulfilled. 

“Neutrality law dictates that our material cannot be delivered directly to warring countries,” he emphasized, repeating a mantra from the country’s legal framework.

Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko (right) speaks with Swiss MP Damien Cottier during the “Crystal Award” ceremony at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos | Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty images

To ensure this is respected, the law could be amended to allow re-exports five years after weapons had been delivered to allied countries, Salzmann added.

EU countries dependent

But five years is an eternity during war, and European countries are eager to get weapons to Ukraine now.

Germany was one of the first to have its request rejected when Bern refused to allow Swiss-made ammunition in Germany’s stocks to be sent to Ukraine as Berlin readied its first shipment of Gepard mobile anti-aircraft systems.

And Germany can’t just buy from elsewhere, said Niklas Masuhr, a researcher at the University of Zurich.

“We are talking about the anti-aircraft gun 35 mm Oerlikon, which is not produced anywhere else in Europe,” he said.

The Swiss blockade prompted German arms-maker Rheinmetall to open a new ammunition factory — but building up production from scratch is a lengthy process, with media reports indicating that a new plant could go operational by mid-2023 at the earliest.

A request by Spain, which wants to send two Oerlikon cannons to Ukraine, is pending, with a spokesperson for the Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs saying this is unlikely to be granted. Last June, the secretariat rejected a similar request from Denmark regarding Swiss-made armored vehicles.

To justify this decision, the Swiss government argued that under Swiss law, weapons cannot be exported to countries involved in international armed conflicts.

In addition, neutral states are required by international law to treat all parties involved in a conflict equally. Since Switzerland has joined international sanctions against Russia — which include a ban on arms trading — it was bound to do the same for Ukraine.

Clock is ticking

Meanwhile, Kyiv is preparing for a Russian offensive in spring. After a fraught wait, Germany finally caved in to the mounting pressure from allies last week, and with others has pledged to send tanks to Ukraine.

With Swiss politicians keenly aware that the war clock is ticking, they have come up with multiple ideas to circumvent the re-export limitations.

In a separate motion, the Swiss government could revoke clauses preventing re-export in agreements with third countries if the weapons are to be sent to a conflict zone that the U.N. General Assembly has condemned as violating international law. This is the case for Russia’s war in Ukraine. 

Rheinmetall’s headquarters in Duesseldorf, Germany | Ina Fassebender/AFP via Getty images

But such motions may only be enacted after a six-month referendum deadline.

Yet another parliamentary initiative — not motion — aims to urgently amend the law, approving the re-exports of Swiss-made weapons to Ukraine if these are “linked to the Russo-Ukrainian war.”

If approved by both chambers, this initiative could enter into force immediately, albeit with a time limit until the end of 2025.

The initiative, dubbed the Lex Ukraine, “is very specific, because we want to go fast, because we want to help them,” said François Pointet, a Green lawmaker and co-chair of the National Council’s security commission.

He said that though the U.N. motion should solve the problem in the future, it would take too long to help Ukraine in the short term.

Burkart, for his part, believes that passing the motion he forwarded by fall would be “very ambitious,” due to a lengthy process that could be torpedoed at its very end if any party opposes the resolution and calls for a referendum.

The legislative process in Switzerland takes about four years on average, experts say.

If Swiss arms are to be delivered to Ukraine in time for it to use them against the expected Russian spring offensive, only Lex Ukraine could allow Bern drop its blockade relatively quickly. 

Yet it’s difficult to gauge whether this stands a chance of being adopted, with some parties having indicated they’ll vote against it. Both Burkart and Salzmann told POLITICO they’re against it because it would, in their view, breach the country’s principle of neutrality if weapons are directly delivered to one country at war but not another.

“If we deliver to Ukraine, then we have to deliver to Russia,” asserted Salzmann. “I don’t think it has a chance.”

Even if the initiative does get adopted, it’s estimated the earliest it could come into force would be this summer.

But that may come too late for Kyiv.