Divisions have emerged in Austria and Switzerland after the two traditionally neutral countries declared their intent to join the European air defense initiative, known as ‘SkyShield.’ Major right-wing parties claim it would bring the two Alpine Republics too close to NATO.
Air defense exercises have increased in Austria since the beginning of the war in Ukraine. Senior military figures say the country is in desperate need of weapons.
“Geschütze zuschalten!” One hour from Vienna, training officers are ordering their soldiers to aim a 45 millimeter gun at an airborne target… “We only have the capability to have short range air defense,” brigade general Reinhard Kraft tells CGTN while observing the ongoing training in Hollabrunn.
“What we are missing is the medium and long range air defense,” he adds. And what we are hoping now is with Sky Shield that we can close this gap within Austria.”
Through Sky Shield, member countries want to coordinate the collective purchase of air defense systems and – most importantly – share radar data of position and direction of hostile shelling.
The neutral countries Austria and Switzerland however, plan to join a light version of the program, where the decision on the military response remains in Vienna and Bern.
Despite the limited membership, many Austrians fear Sky Shield will compromise the country’s long-held neutrality. Opinion polls show around half the population approves of the scheme.
“We shouldn’t be thinking about arms and gear up,” says Salzburg resident Paul. “I think that everyone should just sort themselves out and not look for other people to drag into their stuff,” his friend Damaina adds.
Vienna resident Kurt on the other side says that for Austria it would be better to have a functioning air defense.
Meanwhile, Austria’s far-right Freedom Party is calling for a referendum to stop the country joining the defense initiative.
But the commander of Austria’s Air Force Gerfried Promberger says if neutral Switzerland can sign up to Sky Shield — then so can Austria. “We are not joining an alliance, this is an initiative launched by Germany – a nation state – which has invited us to participate in this air defense procurement process.”
Apart from Austria and Switzerland, all other 17 participating countries are NATO members or applicants.
A number of experts in Austria say joining Sky Shield will not compromise neutrality. The Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow disagrees, claiming that by joining the scheme, Vienna and Bern will be compelled to follow the West’s common defense policy – or face possible US and EU sanctions.
Austria’s government says it will invite military personnel to share all necessary information with opposition leaders – in an attempt to convince the wider political spectrum – and the wider public.