Serbia is looking for weapons


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” VSOME WITH me, ”said Aleksandar Vucic, President of Serbia. “Now you are going to see a smile on my face!” From the terrace of the presidency in Belgrade, he points to the skyscrapers that soar and declares triumphantly: “Like a phoenix rising from its ashes!”

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Other former Yugoslav states fear that the Serbian army may also rise from the ashes. In a minor dispute with Kosovo over car license plates in September, Serbia flew warplanes near the border and deployed armored vehicles to intimidate its little neighbor.

Between 2015 and 2021, Serbia’s defense spending jumped by around 70% to reach $ 1.4 billion per year. Russia and Belarus gave him ten MIG-29 jets. Russia gave him 30 tanks and armored personnel carriers and sold him an air defense system. It bought Chinese armored drones, Russian helicopters and a French surface-to-air missile system. This month, the defense minister announced that Serbia is negotiating to buy transport planes and helicopters from Airbus. Last month it became known that he was talking to Israel about anti-tank missiles. Turkish drones, which were used with devastating effect during the defeat of Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh by Azerbaijan last year, could be on the shopping list. Serbia’s own defense industry is also producing new equipment, instead of just producing more Yugoslav-era products.

After the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, Serbia’s military capacity deteriorated. But in 2014, the government decided to rearm. Russia’s intervention in Ukraine showed that the era of conventional warfare in Europe was not over; and the floods in Serbia that year were a “red flag”, says Daniel Sunter of the Balkan Security Network, a think tank. They revealed that the country has virtually no helicopters for search and rescue missions. In 2015, Croatia, also restoring its armed forces, asked America to provide it with rockets which, if fired at Serbia, could reach the depths of the country.

A modern state needs a modern army, says Vucic. Serbia is spending more in absolute terms than before, but its defense spending as a percentage of GDP has hovered around 2% since 2005. Compared to Bulgaria, Hungary or Romania, it’s “peanuts”, says Mr. Vucic. But the Serbs weren’t at war with Bulgaria, Hungary or Romania in the 1990s. They were at war with neighbors who now have smaller military budgets. Serbia spends more than Albania, Bosnia, Montenegro, Kosovo and North Macedonia combined. It also overtakes Croatia, which buys French jets to restore its almost non-existent air capacity.

If Serbia only modernized its armed forces, it wouldn’t bother anyone. It is the context that triggers the alarms. Bosnia is in political turmoil again, and Milorad Dodik, the leader of the Bosnian Serbs, suggested on October 14 that if his part of Bosnia seceded and violence was to follow, Russia would step in to defend it. Serbian government-controlled tabloids constantly proclaim that war with Kosovo Albanians or Croats is imminent. In October, following a clash between Kosovo Serbs and Kosovo police, imaginative Serbian tabloids linked the presence of British Gurkha troops to violence.

At the same time, nationalists, including the Serbian Minister of the Interior, evoke the creation of a “Serbian world”, of which many in Kosovo, Montenegro and Bosnia fear that it is the code of a Great Serbia that could swallow them up. Mr. Vucic calls this “propaganda”. He says all neighbors know rearmament is “not against them”.

Vuk Vuksanovic, a researcher at the Belgrade Center for Security Policy, argues that the real meaning of rearming the country is political rather than military. Showy arms deals impress Mr. Vucic’s supporters, who tend to hold the armed forces in high regard.

But Serbia is indeed surrounded by NATO (see map). With a large alliance protecting its smaller neighbors, Serbia is highly unlikely to send its troops into battle in the foreseeable future. Indeed, Serbia maintains excellent (albeit discreet) relations with NATO, and America is training Serbian troops. Having a strong army means that the great powers treat you with respect, says Vuksanovic. And if “God forbid” the regional status quo breaks down, then “if we can inflict damage on our hypothetical adversaries, they may be more accommodating to us at the negotiating table.” â– 

This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the headline “An arms race in the Balkans”

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