Germany has asked Switzerland to sell some of its decommissioned Leopard 2 tanks as it struggles to cobble together two battalions of the fighting vehicles to send to Ukraine.
Berlin has requested that its neighbour sell some of its 96 mothballed Leopard 2 tanks to the German arms producer Rheinmetall. That could allow European countries to fill gaps in their own stocks after promising the modern fighting vehicles to Kyiv, or encourage nations that have been reluctant to spare tanks to increase their commitments.
The request from Germany’s defence minister Boris Pistorius and economics minister Robert Habeck was sent to Swiss defence minister Viola Amherd last week, German and Swiss officials said.
The request comes amid annoyance in Berlin that its western allies have pledged only disappointing numbers of tanks to Ukraine after spending months loudly urging Germany to do so.
Pistorius expressed frustration at last month’s Munich Security Conference, saying: “Obviously there are some nations who just preferred to hide behind Germany. It’s easy to say we would if you let us, and when we let them, they didn’t.”
Germany, which is the producer of the tanks that are used by armies across Europe, has been striving to secure enough commitments to fill two battalions of tanks — or 62 vehicles — to bolster the Ukrainian armed forces ahead of a possible spring offensive by Russian troops. Berlin has promised 18 of its Leopard 2s, while Poland has pledged 14. Sweden has said it will send up to 10.
In their letter to Switzerland, the German ministers offered assurances that the tanks would not be sold on to Ukraine, acknowledging the possible concerns of a nation that has neutrality enshrined in its constitution.
Amherd wrote back to Berlin on Wednesday indicating that a deal might be possible under the strict condition that the tanks or their parts were not to be sent onwards to Ukraine and would solely be used to plug European capability gaps.
An official at the Swiss ministry of defence told the Financial Times that a “limited number” of the 96 battle tanks that were in storage could be sent back to Rheinmetall from Switzerland’s stocks, based on a preliminary assessment of materiel ordered by Amherd. Most would need to be retained as part of Swiss military contingency planning, the official said.
Neither Switzerland’s constitutional neutrality nor its War Materials Act — which imposes strict conditions on weapons sales abroad — pose legal obstacles to the resale of Leopard 2s. But parliament’s approval is needed to formally release the stocks from military service.
The country’s largest political bloc, the rightwing populist Swiss People’s party, is likely to oppose any measures that will further call Switzerland’s non-aligned status into question. The party has vociferously opposed the Swiss government’s decision to match EU economic sanctions against Russia.
Other parties are more amenable to more military co-operation with European partners.
A decision last year to refuse Germany permission to give Ukraine Swiss-made ammunition held in German stockpiles caused anger in Berlin but triggered a debate within Switzerland about the limits of the country’s neutral status.
The Swiss government will make a recommendation to parliamentarians on the delivery of Leopard 2 tanks to Germany on Monday.