Switzerland vetoes Danish military donation to Ukraine

Switzerland has blocked a planned delivery by Denmark of 20 Swiss-produced armoured vehicles to Ukraine.

An illustration photo showing Piranha armoured vehicles in France
An illustration photo showing Piranha armoured vehicles in France. Switzerland has blocked Denmark from sending Swiss-made military hardware to Ukraine. File photo: Thomas SAMSON / AFP

The donation of the vehicles to Ukraine by Denmark was blocked by Switzerland due to the latter country’s policy of military neutrality, Swiss broadcaster SRF reported on Wednesday according to news wire Reuters.

Switzerland maintains the right to prevent hardware it produced from being supplied to Ukraine under the neutrality policy, which extends to military assistance to Ukraine in defending itself against the Russian invasion.

As such, Switzerland can prevent military hardware it sells to other countries from being exported to a third country.

The vehicles in question are of the type Piranha III, produced by Swiss company Mowag.

Denmark is reported to have requested permission from the Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) to send the vehicles to Ukraine. The request was reportedly turned down.

The Danish Ministry of Defence has declined to comment on the matter.

“In respect of the confidentiality of operative questions, the Ministry of Defence can not elaborate on issues relating to donations of weapons,” the ministry told Danish news wire Ritzau in a written comment on Monday.

Copenhagen’s plans to send the armoured vehicles to Ukraine were earlier reported by media in the Nordic country.

Denmark has sent body armour, weapons and other military equipment valuing up to two billion kroner (around 270 million euros) to Ukraine, according to statements made in parliament this week.

Switzerland in April blocked a German donation of anti-aircraft ammunition to Ukraine, while Poland has also previously been denied permission to assist Ukraine by donating Swiss hardware, according to Reuters.

Although Switzerland keeps a traditionally neutral foreign policy with regard to military conflicts, it has participated in several economic sanctions led by the EU against Russia following the invasion of Ukraine.

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EXPLAINED: Why does neutral Switzerland need an army?

Given that Switzerland has not fought in any wars since the mid-19th century, the question about why the neutral country needs an active military is a legitimate one.

EXPLAINED: Why does neutral Switzerland need an army?

The last armed conflict that Switzerland was involved in was a short civil war in 1847.

Since then, while Swiss troops were mobilised — and ready to fight — in both World Wars, they did not engage in any combat (though the military did, on at least three occasions, ’invade’ Liechtenstein).

Yet, despite its longstanding tradition of neutrality and non-involvement in wars, every Swiss man is required to serve in the military from the age of 18 to 30.

This also includes  naturalised citizens.

READ MORE: Do naturalised Swiss citizens have to do military service?

The Swiss take this obligation very seriously, considering it their patriotic and civic duty.

Fortunately, Switzerland’s armed forces have never been tested in battle.

During WWII, the country was ready for combat, with every soldier armed and able to fight his way to his regiment’s assembly point at a moment’s notice.

Also, the military reportedly booby-trapped all tunnels, bridges and viaducts, and were ready to detonate the explosives if Germany dared to invade.

So does the army serve any real purpose?

The Swiss refer to their brand of sovereignty as “armed neutrality”, which means that while their army can’t fight in wars outside their own territory, it must defend the country against aggression within its own borders.

Therefore, the goal of the standing military is to ensure internal security — but not only. As the recent history has shown, the army’s role is not just a purely military one, but can extend into the civilian realm as well.

During the height of Covid pandemic in 2020 and 2021, the army was deployed to support the healthcare system by setting up logistics, supplying medical material, transporting patients, and in other roles.

According to the Defence Ministry, one of the basic missions of the Swiss armed forces “is to support the civilian authorities, when their resources are no longer sufficient”.

Aside from helping out with health crises, as was the case with Covid, the military can also be deployed to “ward off severe threats”, as well as “master other exceptional situations, in particular in the event of disasters”.

And while Swiss troops can’t go around invading other countries, they can be involved in disaster relief efforts abroad.

“The objective of humanitarian aid support is primarily to save lives and to ensure the survival of people at risk, and may include rebuilding vital infrastructure», Defence Ministry said.

Could the army defend the country against invasion?

This is purely theoretical, of course, as Switzerland has no such prior experience. The country didn’t even fight back when Napoleon came to call in 1798.

There is no way to know for sure whether the current equipment and 147,510 troops (including 102,715 rank and file soldiers) could defend Switzerland from attack.

However, the question of the country’s defence capabilities is a valid one amid rising tensions across Europe.

It is even more pertinent as in 2010, Switzerland scrapped much of its military equipment when it dramatically downsized the armed forces, along with military spending — a trend that had continued in following years.

Even private homes with obligatory fallout shelters to be used in case of an attack were gradually phased out in favour of communal facilities.

Not surprisingly, a number of MPs have been calling for better preparedness, including re-equipping of ground troops and the renewal of the air force — the latter of which has been done with the purchase of 36 F-35A fighter jets from the US to replace the  country’s current ageing fleet.

READ MORE: Could Switzerland defend itself against invasion?