How Swiss weapons are being used on both sides of the Ukraine-Russia conflict

Despite the government following an official policy of neutrality, Swiss-made weapons are being used by fighters on both sides of the conflict. Closer to home, Swiss politicians are debating rearmament domestically.

Members of the Swiss military lined up performing exercises. Photo by Simon Infanger on Unsplash
Swiss weapons are reportedly being used on both sides of the conflict after Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Photo by Simon Infanger on Unsplash

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has led to fierce fighting in and around several of the country’s largest cities. 

According to observers, forces on both sides of the conflict are using Swiss weapons – with the weapons produced by the same manufacturer. 

Ukrainian soldiers in Donbass have been seen using Swiss submachine guns so far in the conflict, Swiss news outlet 20 Minutes reports

The manufacturer, B&T AG from the town of Thun in the canton of Bern, confirmed the sale of the weapons to Ukraine, saying these were approved by Swiss authorities and were originally delivered in connection with the 2012 European Football Championships. 

EXPLAINED: Understanding Switzerland’s obsession with guns

B&T has also sold MP9 submachine guns to Russian special forces, which have used them since 2015 in the Donbass region. 

The owner of the weapons manufacturer, Karl Brügger, has previously come under fire for breaching Switzerland’s War Material Act by selling sniper rifles and grenade launchers which were to be used in Kazakstan. 

Switzerland’s Tages Anzeiger reports that B&T weapons are likely not the only Swiss arms being used in the conflict. 

Over the past 20 years, Ukraine and Russia have bought CHF5.9 million worth of Swiss weapons. 

The Swiss government confirmed in an official report that pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine bought submachine guns of Swiss origin. 

MPs debate the rearmament of Switzerland

After the outbreak of war in Ukraine, a number of Swiss politicians and security experts are concerned about the country’s safety and readiness to defend itself.

“Switzerland has woken up from the dream of eternal peace,” said Dominik Knill, president of the Swiss Society of Officers. For security expert Niklas Mashur, Russia’s  invasion will influence the debate on increasing defense preparedness and armament budgets.

Among the MPs, some are already calling for more military spending.

“The current situation in Eastern Europe shows that the increase in budget is absolutely necessary”, said Werner Salzmann, chairman of the  parliamentary Security Policy Commission.

Another MP, Thomas Hurter, is also pushing not only for a higher budget, but more soldiers as well.

“The army is there to protect and defend the population against possible external attacks. This principle has been too neglected in recent years”, he said.

14th-largest exporter in the world

Switzerland has seen significant increases in weapons exports in recent years. 

In 2020, the last year on record, Switzerland exported CHF902 million worth of war material, a 24 percent increase on 2019. 

While that may appear significant, it still only represents 0.7 percent of the total global military equipment exports, estimates the Stockholm International Peace Institute

This made Switzerland the 14th largest exporter of arms in the world. 

Efforts to curb Switzerland’s military exports at the ballot box have failed in recent years, with successive referendums thrown out by Swiss voters. 

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Swiss president under fire for handshake photo with Russia’s Lavrov

While attending the opening week of the 77th UN General Assembly in New York this week, Switzerland’s president Ignazio Cassis was photographed shaking hands with Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Swiss president under fire for handshake photo with Russia's Lavrov

Though Cassis announced beforehand that he would address “President Putin’s recent provocations” and that he would “condemn the nuclear threat”, Russia used the photo for its own propaganda purposes, with Lavrov publishing the picture of the two smiling diplomats in his tweet.

Cassis quickly reacted with his own post, explaining that his meeting with Lavrov was for a good cause.

“I called on Russia to refrain from organizing so-called referendums in the occupied territories of Ukraine. Switzerland is also very concerned about the threat of the use of nuclear weapons. Neutrality and good offices remain our instruments of dialogue”.

However, some in Switzerland and elsewhere have not accepted this response.

While the Foreign Ministry said “it sees no problem” with this photo, Swiss media Blick noted that “no head of state or minister of a Western democracy has allowed himself to be represented with Sergei Lavrov in such a posture”.

“This image would reflect an apparent normality in relations between the two countries, while Switzerland is still one of the countries hostile to Russia”.

It added, however, that Cassis might have had a noble motive in shaking Lavrov’s hand.

“In the aftermath of Vladimir Putin’s announcement to mobilise the reserve troops of the Russian army against Ukraine, this somewhat tense grip is more due to the contingencies of diplomacy than to a reconciliation”.

Others were less understanding of Cassis’ action.

“Our President is shaking hands with a war criminal… I can’t believe it”, said Bernhard Guhl, former national adviser to the Center party.

For Thierry Burkart, president of the Liberal party, “it’s unfortunate that this photo exists. But sometimes you just can’t avoid it…”

As for other social media users, one commented that Cassis “looks proud standing next to a genocide instigator… ashamed of my government”.