Switzerland and Austria, Both Traditionally Neutral, Join a German-Led Air Defense Initiative

GENEVA — Switzerland and Austria, two countries with strong traditions of foreign-policy neutrality, signaled their intention on Friday to join a German-led initiative aimed at strengthening Europe’s air defenses to deal with threats highlighted by Russia’s assault on Ukraine.

The Swiss and Austrian defense ministers, Viola Amherd and Klaudia Tanner, signed a memorandum of understanding on joining the project, which is known as Sky Shield and so far involves 17 other European nations, during a meeting with their German counterpart, Boris Pistorius, in the Swiss capital Bern on Friday.

Sky Shield aims to coordinate procurement of air defense systems and promote cooperation in training, research and logistics, and has attracted support from Britain, the Baltic States, Sweden and Finland. The Swiss and German ministers said on Friday that they also intended to cooperate on strategic air transport.

Switzerland and Austria denied that their participation would in any way compromise their traditional posture of neutrality. A Swiss government statement said: “It is in Switzerland’s interest to gear its security and defense policy more consistently towards international cooperation, and to increase its contributions.”

But Swiss participation marks another step toward aligning more closely with European neighbors since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a process that has stoked fierce debate with critics who fear the country is straying from its tradition of strict neutrality.

Switzerland has joined European sanctions imposed on Russia after its invasion and has shown signs of softening its stance on allowing sales of defense equipment to countries providing military support to Ukraine.

Switzerland rejected requests from Germany and Denmark last year to re-export Swiss-made armored vehicles and ammunition, but its lower house of Parliament voted last month in favor of selling decommissioned Leopard tanks to Germany. Under the proposed terms of the sale, still to be approved, the tanks could not be sent on to Ukraine, but they could be used to replace tanks that Germany is sending from its own holdings.

Germany promotes Sky Shield as a speedy and cost-efficient approach to plugging gaps in Europe’s air defenses by buying available systems off-the-shelf from the United States or other suppliers, and has set an example by ordering the Israeli-U.S. “Arrow 3” defense system.

Berlin’s approach faces resistance from France and Italy in particular, which are keen to promote their own defense industries and develop systems that will help to wean Europe off dependence on the United States. Those arguments do not weigh immediately on Switzerland, which chose to upgrade its air force buying Lockheed-Martin F-35s in preference to rival European fighters and is also purchasing the United States’ Patriot missile system.

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