Serbia has been, for years, Russia’s closest ally in the Balkans. For Moscow, the relationship is a means to project an image of power and international relevance. Belgrade, on the other hand, plays the pro-Russian card to show that it has an alternative to a West that bruised its ego during the Kosovo war, but also for some pragmatic reasons, such as Russia’s support in the UN Security Council and its role as an energy provider. Belgrade’s real interests lie, however, with the EU, and the war in Ukraine may bring about a change – albeit a slow one – in its relationship with Russia.
The four pillars of Russian influence in Serbia
The Western Balkans (a region that includes Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina) have been on their European path for past two decades; in addition, some of the countries in the region have already joined NATO. At the same time, Russia, as a great power, is trying to maintain its influence in this region, even though it is not geographically close to it, or at least to counter the influence of the West. Within the Western Balkans, Serbia is the most important partner for Russia.
Given the traditional ties between Belgrade and Moscow, as well as the Serbian policy of neutrality, Serbia is a suitable ground for strengthening Russian influence, its expansion and balancing with the West. Spheres of Russian influence are primarily in the field of energy and security and defense.
Russia's political influence rests on four pillars. The first pillar is Russia's position as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. It enables Serbia to be protected, as Russia may veto decisions that might harm Belgrade’s interests. Secondly, there’s the historical and cultural connection of Russia with the peoples of Southeast Europe with the Orthodox tradition. The third pillar is its energy assets on which Serbia is completely dependent. Military cooperation is the fourth pillar on which Russia is trying to maintain and expand its influence despite the growing cooperation of the Western Balkan countries with NATO.
In 1999, Russia, along with China, opposed NATO intervention in the UN Security Council. However, concrete assistance from Russia was lacking, despite Belgrade's expectations at the time that the Kremlin would provide more active assistance.
After the fall of strongman Slobodan Milosevic in the October 2000 revolution and the arrival of a new pro-Western government, Russia had lost its ally in the Western Balkans. However, a few years later, when the status of Kosovo got questioned, there was room for the return of Russian influence in the Western Balkans.
Russia’s most important tool: energy
Serbia, like the Western Balkans region, has stronger economic ties to the European Union, which ranks first on the region's list of trade partners with a share of 73% of the total trade, while Russia's share is only 4.8%. If we ignore trade within the energy sector, Russia's role in the Serbian economy is less noticeable because Russian investment in the period from 2010 to 2020 was only 4.5% of total foreign investment. However, the picture does change if one considers the energy industry.
The dominant position of Russian energy companies in Southeast Europe is not a coincidence, but the result of a long-term strategy. The Russian government works closely with these companies in order to gain political leverage through the energy sector. And this has certainly the case with Serbia.
A new chapter in Serbia-Russia relations was opened with the signing of an energy agreement between Belgrade and Moscow in January 2008, just before Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence. The then Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica and President Boris Tadic signed the agreement, transferring 51% of the ownership of the state-owned company Naftna Industrija Srbije (NIS) to Russia's Gazprom Neft, well below the market price at the time. The sale of NIS for 400 million euros with the obligation to invest 500 million euros meant the sale of the right to explore and use domestic oil and gas reserves worth seven billion euros. In return, Russia only promised informally to include Serbia on the route of the South Stream gas pipeline, which was scrapped several years later because of its non-compliance of with the EU law.
Serbia is currently dependent on Russian gas. While it manages to meet just under 13 percent of the needs from domestic production, all the remaining necessary quantities, according to data from the Energy Agency, are imported exclusively from the Russian Federation.
Also, Serbia is on the route of Russia’s Turkish Stream gas pipeline. It runs on Serbian territory for 403 kilometers, from Zajecar to Horgos in the north, on the border between Serbia and Hungary, and it delivers Russian gas through Turkey and Bulgaria. According to the officials, its capacity is 15.75 billion cubic meters of gas a year.
The Turkish Stream gas pipeline is part of Russia's long-term ambition to minimize gas transport through Ukraine by building alternative routes such as, in addition to Turkish Stream, Nord Stream 1 and 2.
A source from Western diplomatic circles in Belgrade points out that there were several calls from the EU and member states for Serbia to start the process of energy diversification, but Serbia ignored those calls for fear of jeopardizing its relations with Russia. There is also a belief in diplomatic circles that Serbian political elites are afraid of Russian retaliation and that there are concerns about the security of top government officials.
Projecting an image of Russian relevance in the Balkans through military cooperation
The government justified the conclusion of the strategic energy agreement by the need to ensure energy stability in the region by building the South Stream project, strengthening the Serbian economy. Moreover, there was a political dimension of the agreement – the strategic partnership between Moscow and Belgrade in preserving Serbia's territorial integrity and sovereignty. A year earlier, the National Assembly had passed a Resolution on the Protection of Sovereignty, Territorial Integrity and Constitutional Order of the Republic of Serbia, which proclaimed military neutrality as an official state policy, which assured Moscow that Serbia would not become part of the North Atlantic Alliance. Such a declaration also provided space for various joint initiatives in the field of defense and security between Serbia and Russia as a counter-balance to the cooperation between Serbia and NATO through the Partnership for Peace program, of which Serbia has been a member since December 2006.
In addition, by signing the Declaration on Strategic Partnership with Russia in May 2013, Serbia was granted observer status in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), while nurturing relations with the Eurasian Economic Union. The fact that the relations between Serbia and Russia were strengthened after 2008 is also shown by the number of meetings between Russian officials and their Serbian counterparts. A very controversial visit took place in 2014, when a military parade in Belgrade was attended by Vladimir Putin at a time when relations between the European Union and Russia were on the verge of collapse due to Russia's annexation of Crimea. During the Ukraine crisis in 2014, Serbia chose a neutral position by abstaining from the vote at the United Nations General Assembly. Political actors in Serbia defended the decision by claiming that it served Serbia’s national interests.
In recent years, joint military exercises of the Army of Serbia and the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation have intensified, in accordance with the agreement signed in 2013. The first one that was held was "Srem 2014" at the "Nikinci" range near Sremska Mitrovica. One year later, a new edition of the exercises was organized. This time it was named “Slavic Brotherhood”, a name that would stuck during the following years. Also in 2015, special units of the Belarusian army joined the drills. Ever since, the "Slavic Brotherhood" has been held alternately in Serbia, Russia and Belarus.
Since 2015, the Serbian Air Force and its Russian counterparts have also been conducting the BRSAB (Brotherhood of Russian and Serbian Aviation Brotherhood) drills, where pilots and technical services practice tasks such as air combat, air protection, and air transport.
Since 2017, ground units of the Serbian Army have been conducting exercises with troops from the Western Military District of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation on training grounds near St. Petersburg.
Serbia has also been participating, since 2014, in the Tank Biathlon in Moscow where tactics and shooting from tanks in extreme conditions are practiced. The Serbian Army is the only European country participating in the competition, along with Belarus.
However, the question arises as to the purpose of these military drills and whether there is a real benefit for Serbia. According to military expert Nikola Lunic, a retired Navy captain, Serbia does not benefit from these military exercises; moreover, the drills are not in the country’s interest. The reasons for holding them are political and the aim is to gain media influence and shape public opinion, which is already in favor of Russia.
The common military drills are primarily a way for Russia to project its geopolitical influence in its own interest. In this way, Russia raises its visibility and creates the image that it still has an ally in the Balkans, a region that has been largely influenced by the West.
It is worth noting that Serbia has a far greater number of joint exercises with NATO. The main purpose of these exercises is to maintain interoperability with NATO and UN forces as the Serbian military participates in several peacekeeping missions around the world.
Russian weapons for Serbia: more of a buzz than a significant increase in Belgrade’s capabilities
In recent years, Serbia has significantly increased its defense spending - in an attempt to achieve a dominant position in the Balkans. Allocations for the army increased to about 1.14 billion dollars in 2020 and 2019 - which is about 43 percent more than in 2018.
Serbia is currently spending 2.42% of its GDP on the military which makes it the biggest spender in the defense sector in the Western Balkans. It is practically impossible to connect arms and expenditures costs to concrete individual procurement because costs are not disaggregated by specific projects.
Even though the state of defense cooperation between Serbia and Russia is significant, the information about the donations from Russia and Belarus are regarded as foreign classified data, entrusted by another state to be kept confidential.
Since 2012, the media have been writing about the procurement and donation of weapons from the Russian Federation. However, neither the procurement nor the donations that have been made public are very significant in terms of increasing Serbia’s capabilities, especially if one compares them to NATO’s.
When it comes to specific purchases, at the beginning of 2015, a contract worth 25 million US dollars was concluded for additional Mi-8 helicopters, while the contract for the purchase of reconnaissance vehicles and more Mi-8 helicopters was concluded in the first months of 2016. In December 2016, Serbian army announced plans to get six used Mikoyan MiG-29 fighter jets from Russia, as well as 30 T-72C tanks and 30 BRDM-2 amphibious vehicles as part of the military agreement signed by Vucic and Putin. The equipment was eventually donated by Russia, but Serbia had to cover significant costs as well. Due to restrictions in the transit countries, the vehicles had to be transported by air, which ended up being more expensive than the factory price. As for the planes, they needed to be repaired and overhauled at an estimated cost of approximately 235 million dollars. The challenge in understanding the entire military cooperation between Serbia and Russia is the secrecy of data on purchases and donations of Russian weapons. Therefore, only according to the statements of state officials, it is possible to collect information on the type of weapons that Serbia procures from Russia.
There are several clear reasons why Serbia buys weapons from Russia as well as why Russia donates weapons to Serbia. As for Russia's position, by donating weapons, they are sending a message to the West that they are active and that this is still not a lost region for them. Much more complex reasons are behind Serbia's decision to arm itself, although there is no indication that there will be a war, and that it will then arm itself from the East and not the West. A former Minister of Defense of Serbia, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told Veridica that Serbia is under unofficial American sanctions for the purchase of weapons because the Americans do not see the need for Serbia to arm itself. He points out that as a minister he addressed the US government several times, but that the Americans did not want to hear about the idea of Serbia buying any weapons. In this way, as retired navy captain Nikola Lunic explains, Serbia is forced to procure weapons from the Russians or the Chinese. One additional reason for buying from Russia is that the Serbian military technology is based on the Russian one and therefore does not require special training, while weapons are easy to maintain and repair. Why is Serbia arming itself when it is surrounded by NATO countries or countries where NATO forces are present? The former defense minister explains that there is great frustration in Serbia with the 1999 NATO bombing campaign and that this is the main reason for Serbian armaments. Nikola Lunic points out that because of that, Serbia is strengthening its air defense system.
The non-transparency of all purchases from Russia exists because otherwise all the insanity of the price that Serbia pays for Russian weapons would be shown, adds captain Lunic.
Is Serbia about to turn West?
Since the start of the war in Ukraine, Serbia has shown the first clear signals of its distance from Russia, knowing that its economic interests are more tied to the West than to Russia. Serbia's energy dependence on Russia remains the main card that Russia can play, and Serbia is blackmailed into not making decisions that could jeopardize its energy stability. Although Serbia did not impose sanctions on Russia, it did condemn the Russian aggression against Ukraine and stood by the territorial integrity of Ukraine. Serbia also voted in favor of several UN resolutions condemning Russian aggression, and voted to expel Russia from the UN Human Rights Council. Serbian authorities have also announced that they will enter the process of energy diversification, and on that path, Serbia will receive the support of the United States and Germany.
To better understand the picture of Moscow’s clout it’s important to say that among the public there is no frustration with Russia's policy towards Serbia because there have never been armed conflicts between the two countries; the frustration with the West stems from the latter’s policy, which was perceived as anti-Serbian since the Yugoslav Wars in general and the bombing of Serbia during the 1999 Kosovo war in particular. Because of that, the West has been regularly portrayed by the Serbian media as the culprit on duty for all the evils and crises of the world. This provided favorable conditions for Russia to embrace Serbia and convince it that it is its most reliable partner. Propaganda in Serbia has done so much to promote the relationship with Russia, that now even people who see the obvious crimes committed by the Russian army are finding the culprits in the West so as not to blame Russia. However, Serbia has gained much more economically from the West. That is the most important reason today it is turning more to the West and less to Moscow.
In the last few months, the Serbian authorities have taken some concrete steps towards distancing Serbian interests from Russia. One of those steps is the cancellation of Sergei Lavrov's visit to Belgrade. According to a source close to the Serbian government, Serbian authorities, in co-operation with European partners, have been working to find the best solution to cancel Lavrov's visit to Belgrade. It was in Serbia's interest to cancel the visit and the same source claims that Russia blackmailed Serbia with Lavrov’s request to come to Belgrade. Russian aim was to show to the world that there are still countries Russia has impact on the European ground. Also, the aim was to show that Russian officials are still welcome in some European countries. Serbian authorities knew that if Lavrov would come to Belgrade it would jeopardize their relationship to the West.
Russia's ambassador to Serbia stated that Serbia would suffer not only economic but also social consequences by imposing sanctions on Russia. He did not explain what those social consequences would be, but it can be assumed that he meant causing instability within Serbia through Russian proxies. This was the most explicit threat coming from Russia. Today, Serbia has brought itself into a paradoxical situation where it wants to distance itself from Russia, but due to Belgrade’s propaganda, the public opinion is extremely favorable to the Kremlin. However, according to the few sources from the media, the Kremlin has not expected Serbian support as they knew for the years that Serbia is unofficially aligning more with the West. Still, Russia needs to create a picture of the world power having influences in different regions. Serbia is being used as part of that Russian strategy without any clear goal and plan.