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Swiss veto of weapons re-exports to Ukraine angers Germany

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German politicians have called for an end to arms deals with Switzerland as a political dispute deepens over Bern’s refusal to allow arms to be shipped to Ukraine.

Swiss lawmakers responded on Monday with accusations — and thinly veiled references to the second world war — that Germany “no longer respects” Switzerland’s political neutrality. The issue has become more urgent since Russia escalated an aerial campaign targeting Ukraine’s infrastructure and as Kyiv’s weapon stocks have dwindled, German officials said.

German defense minister Christine Lambrecht wrote to the Swiss government 10 days ago, urging it to lift a re-export veto on anti-aircraft shells for German-made “Cheetah” flak guns that Berlin has donated to Kyiv. Bern first refused a request by Berlin to lift the veto in April.

Germany wants to send 12,000 Swiss-made 35-milimetre rounds that were bought by Berlin decades ago to restock the 50 Cheetah flak cannons it has pledged to Ukraine.

The Swiss government, as part of the original sales contract with Germany, has a veto over the munitions’ resale or donation. Politicians in the wealthy alpine state believe that sending them to Ukraine would jeopardize its neutrality. Switzerland refused a request from Denmark for the re-export of two dozen Swiss-made “Piranha” armored personnel carriers to Ukraine in May.

The German government has been struggling to find more shells to send to Kyiv. Brazil, which makes suitable ammunition for the Cheetah guns, has also refused to allow their re-export.

German defense minister Christine Lambrecht, center, speaks to special forces soldiers in Calw

German defense minister Christine Lambrecht, center, speaks to special forces soldiers in Calw © Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images

The Cheetah system, though phased out of Germany’s military in 2010, has proved effective against the slow-moving Iranian “kamikaze” drones that have been used to pummel Ukrainian civilian targets this autumn.

The Swiss company that manufactured the ordnance for them, Oerlikon-Bührle, no longer exists. He was a major supplier of arms to the Third Reich at time when the safeguarding of Swiss neutrality was even more important.

“For once, the Swiss government is right,” said Thomas Borer, former Swiss ambassador to Germany and an architect of Switzerland’s current laws on neutrality. “It’s clear that delivering arms of weapons into a conflict would infringe the core principle of what neutrality means for Switzerland. As a friendly neighbor that is aware of our laws and obligations, Germany shouldn’t put Switzerland in this position.”

Lambrecht wrote to her Swiss counterpart Viola Amherd saying the Cheetah munitions were purely defensive. In the letter, she said the weapons were “vital” for the protection of Black Sea grain exports from potential bombardment, according to Ukraine’s military.

Bern has yet to formally respond to Berlin’s renewed request, which has been made in parallel with diplomatic lobbying from Ukrainian officials. The Swiss defense ministry has passed the new German request on to the finance ministry, which handles export licences, a Swiss government spokesperson said, declining to comment further.

A spokesperson for Germany’s defense ministry said: “We are always actively finding ways to support Ukraine through our partners and alliances.” Discussions with Switzerland were part of that process, they added.

Senior German politicians, including members of parties in the governing coalition, have been more forthright, with Germany being Switzerland’s largest arms export market.

“Anyone who does not deliver ammunition to an attacked state for national defense can no longer be a reliable supplier of ammunition for us either,” Marcus Faber, head of the liberal Free Democratic party’s parliamentary defense group, wrote on Twitter on Sunday. “If Switzerland refuses this to Ukraine. . . then for security reasons, we can no longer get anything from there.”

Roderich Kiesewetter of the conservative opposition Christian Democrats and a member of the Bundestag foreign affairs committee told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper on Monday that he would also support an end to weapons purchases from Switzerland.

“Whoever shirks away in this situation has to accept the accusation of failing to provide assistance,” he said.

Swiss politicians responded angrily to the comments. “It has never turned out particularly well when Germany has interfered in the politics of other countries,” said Marco Chiesa, head of the rightwing populist Swiss People’s party, on Monday.

“Germany no longer perceives and respects Switzerland as a neutral country,” Chiesa, who leads Switzerland’s largest political party, told the Tages-Anzeiger newspaper.