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Time for Serbia to Scale Back Military Ties with Russia

March 04, 2022
Any divisions between the United States and its European allies and partners on issues like defense spending, Nord Stream II, or support for NATO have evaporated quickly following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

They are determined to support the country and oppose Vladimir Putin’s effort to recreate the Soviet Union and his threats to European security. They are applying the sternest sanctions against Moscow, Putin, and the Kremlin’s oligarchy as well as supplying weapons and assistance to Ukraine.

Given the stakes, the transatlantic efforts to stand up to Russia will go beyond just clamping down on Putin and the Kremlin, focusing also on their enablers around the world. In the United States, notably, Congress in 2017 passed the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act  (CAATSA), a sweeping law that expanded the toolbox for dealing with countries that have extensive and harmful security relationships with Moscow. It mandates the president to impose sanctions on any person or entity engaging in a significant transaction with the Russian military or intelligence services. The president can waive the sanctions but must act if a country continues to strike significant arms deals with Russia. Thus, the United States imposed CAATSA sanctions on Turkey in December 2020 for its import of the Russian S-400 air defense system.

Most NATO members and partner nations in Central and Eastern Europe have halted their imports of Russian weapons or had been weaning themselves off prior to the war in Ukraine, not only in compliance with CAATSA but also to increase their alignment and interoperability with the West. One, however, has moved in the opposite direction: Serbia.

Serbia’s Relationship with Russia and China

Serbia has for several years been drifting away from the West and expanding its political, economic, and security ties with Russia (as well as with China). It is time that the United States and the EU take a hard look at their accommodating approach toward Belgrade and show it that there are serious consequences for continuing on this path, including potential sanctions.

Since the passage of CAATSA, Serbia has considerably increased its imports of heavy weapons from Russia. It has received 6 MiG-29  fighters from Russia as well as 30 T-72 tanks, 30 other armored vehicles, and the Pantsir S1 air-defense system. In January, a shipment of Kornet anti-tank missiles arrived from Russia. (Serbia has also procured 4 MiG-29s from Belarus, which is participating in Putin’s war on Ukraine.) Its weapons deliveries have gotten so large and important to Moscow that it opened a defense office in Belgrade.

It is time that the United States and the EU take a hard look at their accommodating approach toward Belgrade.

The ties between the two countries go beyond weapons shipments. According to Russia’s Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu, “Cooperation between Russia and Serbia has become dynamic and multifaceted in recent years.” Last year, the Serbian military conducted two significant military exercises with Russia’s armed forces, the Joint Response 2021 exercise in May and Slavic Shield 2021 in October.

Six NATO states, including four that are also EU members, border Serbia and are increasingly wary about how it is bulking up militarily. In response, for example, Croatia has spent €1 billion on a major fighter purchase. During a dispute with Kosovo last fall over license plates, Belgrade sent tanks and fighters to the border, and the presence of NATO’s force in Kosovo helped keep tensions from boiling over.

While its policy toward Serbia has not changed, the United States has taken notice. A 2019 report from the Department of Defense (DoD) explained how serious the situation has become. According to DoD, “Serbia provides the most permissive environment for Russian influence in the Balkans.”

Serbia has intensified its security and political ties not only with Russia, but with China, too, across the economic, political, and military arenas. Today, China considers the country to be a major entry point  to Europe for its Belt and Road Initiative. Speaking last year about Serbia’s relations with China, President Aleksandar Vučić said: “We have very good cooperation between our countries and we want to bring it to a higher level if possible...Our friendship is honest and big and no wonder we call it ‘steel’.” Evidencing the military component of the relationship, Belgrade has purchased an air-defense system and armed military drones from Beijing.

Serbia’s Relationship with the United States and the EU

The picture is not all bad. Though Serbia does not wish to join NATO (as most of its neighbors have), it remains a member of the alliance’s Partnership for Peace. Serbians have trained with the Ohio National Guard, as part of the National Guard’s State Partnership Program, and the country has held more than twice the number of engagements with the United States than any other country. Serbia also is pursuing membership in the European Union and recently opened several new chapters in the accession process.

Those productive contacts are now in jeopardy, however. In order to preserve its neutrality and to avoid taking sides between the United States and its European allies and Russia, Vučić has announced that Serbia will stop all military drills with foreign troops. Serbia has not aligned its foreign and national security policies with those of the EU. According to the European Commission, Serbia’s “alignment” with statements by the high representative for foreign affairs and security policy and Council Decisions was 61 percent” in 2021. By contrast, Albania and Montenegro were fully aligned while the alignment of North Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina was 96 percent and 70 percent respectively.

On Ukraine, Serbia has strayed even more dramatically from the European consensus, which is increasingly embracing a harder line against the Kremlin.

On Ukraine, Serbia has strayed even more dramatically from the European consensus, which is increasingly embracing a harder line against the Kremlin. Unlike every EU member state and candidate country, it opposes sanctions on Russia for the invasion. In December, Serbia voted against a UN General Assembly resolution that urged Russia to immediately “withdraw its military forces from Crimea and end its temporary occupation of the territory of Ukraine.” The resolution was supported by the United States and the EU member states. Serbia’s misalignment with the EU is not only in relation to the major powers. Last fall, it hosted a conference of the Non-Aligned Movement, in which it is an active participant.

There are also questions about how much Serbia’s government is committed to joining the EU, which is the wish of a majority of Serbs. We were very enthusiastic about the accession process—today we are not...We don’t care anymore,” Vučić said in September 2021. To put itself back on the path to democracy and EU accession, the country should immediately implement the commitments it made at the Summit for Democracy in December. In 2017, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Hoyt Yee warned that Serbia needed to make a choice between Russia and the West, and that it could not “sit on two chairs at the same time especially if they’re that far apart.” Since then, the United States and the EU have largely stood by and watched as Serbia drifted even further toward Russia. They need to tell Belgrade clearly that its actions and military relations with Moscow undermine regional security, and that it could face serious consequences for this.

Yet, now that Putin has launched a war on Ukraine and threatens peace across Europe, Serbia is still trying to straddle the growing chasm between Russia and the transatlantic community. It is time for the United States and its European allies and partners to demand that Serbia’s leaders scale back their military ties with Russia (and China) or face sanctions.

The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.

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