Today's Editorial

Today's Editorial - 14 August 2023

European Sky Shield Initiative

Source: By Smruti Deshpande: The Print

In a sign of changing dynamics within EuropeAustria and Switzerland — known for their strong traditions of foreign policy neutrality — have joined a regional grouping that seeks to develop a common air defence shield in the wake of Russia’s attack on Ukraine.

The grouping is known as the ‘European Sky Shield Initiative’ (ESSI) for air defence, and both countries signed for it on in Bern, Switzerland. This comes after two Nordic countries — Denmark and Sweden — became part of the initiative.

Austrian foreign minister Klaudia Tanner said that Austria would be protected against short-and medium-range missiles starting in 2024 and its airspace will be fully covered in 2025. However, both countries made it clear that joining the initiative does not take away their neutrality. The initiative was last year spearheaded by Germany after Russia invaded Ukraine, pushing other European countries to worry about their own security.

In October last year, defence ministers from 14 North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) members — Belgium, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Germany, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Slovakia, Slovenia, Romania and the UK — came together with the Nordic country of Finland to form such a project. Today, the number of ESSI members has gone up to 19.

What is the purpose of initiative?

The initiative aims to create a European air and missile defence system through the common acquisition of air defence equipment and missiles by European nations to strengthen NATO’s Integrated Air and Missile Defence (IAMD).

At the time of the signing of the letter of intent in October last year, NATO Deputy Secretary General Mircea Geoană said: “This commitment is even more crucial today, as we witness the ruthless and indiscriminate missile attacks by Russia in Ukraine, killing civilians and destroying critical infrastructure. In this context, I strongly welcome Germany’s leadership in launching the European Sky Shield Initiative.”

He added that the new assets, fully interoperable and seamlessly integrated within the NATO air and missile defence system, would significantly enhance the grouping’s ability to defend the alliance from all air and missile threats. Interestingly, NATO member France is not part of the initiative and has actually spoken against it.

The French government reportedly believes that since the new system relies largely on US and Israeli defence industry, the project doesn’t adequately preserve European sovereignty. The ESSI encourages the member countries to jointly develop an air and missile defence system using interoperable, off-the-shelf solutions.

If faced with air and missile threats in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the initiative aims to leverage the already existing NATO cooperation framework and defend member states against missile threats. NATO, terming it a “multinational and multifaceted approach”, said it offers a flexible and scalable way for nations to strengthen their deterrence and defence in an “efficient and cost-effective way”.

Multinational acquisition for the ESSI will be conducted through a Rapid Acquisition Track within NATO’s Modular Ground-Based Air Defence High Visibility Project, as decided by 10 allied defence ministers in February, according to a NATO release.

What about neutrality?

Switzerland, a landlocked mountainous country located at the confluence of western, central and southern Europe, is bordered by Austria, France, Germany, Italy and Liechtenstein. One of the stark features of Switzerland’s foreign policy was the ‘Neutral’ status the country endowed upon itself in the Treaty of Paris in 1815.

It adheres to the principle of not involving itself in any armed conflict between other states. Under the policy of neutrality, the country cannot allow other states to use its territory for war purposes. Reportedly, there is an internal debate in the country about its neural status. With the Russia-Ukraine war, which is happening too close for comfort for Switzerland, it is believed that the country — with participation in the ESSI — has started moving into the NATO fold in order to preserve its security.

Switzerland, however, is not a member of the NATO alliance, which requires mutual action and assistance in times of war. In March this year, when Germany asked Switzerland to sell mothballed Leopard 2 tanks to increase military aid to Ukraine, the country declined, despite Germany’s assurance that the tanks would not be transferred to Ukraine.

Switzerland is no exception to the neutrality question. Austria also considers itself a neutral state — a feature of its foreign policy currently undergoing a test. Sweden and Finland also upheld neutrality until May 2022, when they simultaneously handed their official letters of application to join NATO to its Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.

NATO heads of state and government extended an invitation to Finland and Sweden to join the alliance at the Madrid Summit on 29 June, 2022.

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