The decision taken on Wednesday by the Swiss Federal Council to block the sale of Leopard 1A5 main battle tanks to Ukraine has revealed the contradictions within the government about the advisability of delivering weapons to a country involved in an armed conflict, according to The Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ) reported yesterday.

Although Switzerland’s War Material Law (KMG) strictly prohibits such deliveries and also prohibits the re-export of Swiss-made weapons to countries at war, some government ministers, including Defense Minister Viola Amherd, and several legislators, are in favor of relaxing these rules to allow Switzerland to support Ukraine’s self-defense against Russian invasion.

Wednesday’s ban affects 96 Leopard 1A5 tanks that RUAG, a Swiss state-owned company, had bought in 2016 from the Italian Defense Ministry and kept in storage in northern Italy. In 2022 Rheinmetall asked Ruag if they could buy the tanks for refurbishment and then deliver them directly to Ukraine.

RUAG then asked the Secretary of State for the Economy (Seco), responsible for arms exports, if it would approve a possible sale to Rheinmetall, and the matter was raised to the Federal Council by Guy Parmelin, the economy minister, NZZ reported.

The matter was complicated when the Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, intervened, according to the “Tages-Anzeiger,” before the Swiss federal president, Alain Berset, to approve the agreement, which the Netherlands wanted to help finance.

With the “no” on Wednesday, the NZZ observed the Swiss government oscillates between the neutrality law and the neutrality policy, sends signals, and appears to its international partners until the decisive moment arrives, as on Wednesday: in case of doubt, strictly abides by the law.

Bern’s veto is likely to anger Switzerland’s European allies, which have been pressing the government for months to relax its restrictive interpretation of a long-cherished policy of neutrality, the Financial Times reported on Thursday, noting that “tanks never have seen service in Switzerland, were never intended for use by the Swiss Army and are not based in the country.”

The “questionable” role of the minister

The role played by Defense Minister Viola Amherd in this matter is even more questionable, the NZZ reported. For months now, the Minister of Defense has made it clear, publicly and in a way that is understandable to everyone, that she personally wants to go much further than the Federal Council. RUAG chief Christine Beck also strongly advocated for the Leopard 1 main battle tanks stored in Italy to be shipped to Ukraine as soon as possible, mainly, but not exclusively, for financial reasons.

Until the end, the head of the DDPS would have tried to convince her colleagues in the Federal Council to sell. In a short press release on Wednesday, the Federal Council declared that the sale of the 96 tanks was not compatible with applicable law. “It would be in contradiction with the War Material Law and would mean an adjustment of the neutrality policy.”

What the Federal Council failed to say, writes NZZ, is that a sale would also contradict the sanctions Switzerland has adopted from the EU since the Russian attack. Last November, the Federal Council tightened the eighth sanctions package with a “Swiss auction” and extended the arms embargo against Russia to include Ukraine “for reasons of Swiss neutrality.”