Tuesday, December 5, 2023

The unfiltered truth about recent Serbia-Russia relations

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In the weeks since rumors first began circulating that Serbia sent weapons to Ukraine, the Kremlin very publicly expressed deep concern and demanded an official explanation from Belgrade.

Serbia has very strictly respected its obligations regarding an arms trade agreement, as well as the EU Export Control Regulation and Europe’s agreed criteria for issuing operational licenses issued by the EU Common Position. The current global high demand for weapons and military equipment has led Belgrade to enforce guarantees from the end user. Serbia regularly insists on an agreement on the prohibition of re-export without the prior consent of the seller.

Furthermore, Serbia strictly adheres to all international norms in the arms trade, wherein Belgrade unilaterally decided not to export weapons to the warring parties in Ukraine. Moscow, however, decided to exert diplomatic pressure on Serbia and intensify their public attacks on the Serbia government. These overt intimidation tactics were directly aimed at the Russian public and their social networks.

The Kremlin’s disrespectful attitude towards Serbia has obliged the latter, primarily for the sake of the Serbian and Russian public, to provide a detailed explanation based on facts to remind the rest of the world about the role the Russian Federation played in the Western Balkans, in the recent past. The majority of the public is not familiar with, or chooses to ignore, the facts of recent history.

The Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, who was only 15 years old when the Yugoslav Wars began, should be especially reminded of Russia’s dark role in the brutal disintegration of Yugoslavia.

Despite the long-touted “Slavic Orthodox Brotherhood” with Serbia that Russia endlessly ballyhoos, in the early 1990s, the Kremlin violated a UN embargo and helped Croatia create its strategic – i.e. combat-ready – aviation capabilities. Moscow not only took care of arms deliveries, but enthusiastically trained Croatian pilots and air defense system crews; organized logistical support, educated technical personnel and established a base for complete aircraft maintenance.

The base, known as the Aviation Technical Center, was established in Velika Gorica, on the grounds of the Croatian capital Zagreb’s international airport; where UNPROFOR – the United Nations Protection Force in the former Yugoslavia – was also present. From that site in 1993-2002, Russian Colonel Sergey Pan, a world-renowned expert in the maintenance of Soviet military helicopters, oversaw the care and maintenance of the Croatian Air Force’s helicopter fleet.

According to Pan, the original spare parts for the helicopters were procured from military warehouses or through the Russian state company Rosoboroneexport, which delivered them directly from factories all over the Russian Federation. Russian Aviation experts from Russia’s Armed Forces trained Croatian pilots in combat tactics, which were mainly carried out around Varazdin, in northern Croatia, and at the Cape Kamenjak military training area near Pula, on the Istrian Peninsula.

Even UNPROFOR noticed the intensity of Mi-24D helicopter flights and asked Zagreb for an explanation. This did nothing to deter the Russians, for as long as Croatia paid regularly, Moscow was a reliable partner. All delivered arms and services were paid by Zagreb, mainly through the Swiss bank UBS and a Zurich-based banker, Hans Merz.

The extremely high-end items and luxury goods that were given to the trainers and technicians were later believed to have been rewarded for Russian helicopter pilots who participated in combat missions against Serb positions and for maintaining an air bridge with the Bosniak majority city Bihac, which was under siege by Serb forces for three years.

It sounds paradoxical for Russophiles the world over to realise that the Americans and Germans – Croatia’s ally in World War II – strictly adhered to an arms embargo against Croatia, while Russia – in violation of UN sanctions – significantly improved the capabilities of the Croatian Armed Forces.

The historical facts show that Russia was complicit in war crimes against the Serbian population. Unfortunately, the Russian public neither knows nor wants to know the real truth; just as they do not care whether Soviet-made MiG-21s delivered to Croatia participated in the war crimes.

It’s not that Belgrade didn’t try to change the facts on the ground. None other than Slobodan Miloševic twice sent the Chief of the General Staff to Moscow to prepare a mutual aid agreement between the two countries. Russia’s interests in the 1990s, Serbia was not a priority for the Kremlin.

Moscow’s mouthpiece, Zakharova, should also be reminded that it is only thanks to the United States that the Serbian people have a Republika Srpska, one of the entities of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Towards the very end of the War in Bosnia in 1994 and 1995, and thanks to Russia’s training mission, the Croatian Armed Forces broke the Serbs’ resistance in the north and west of Bosnia. As the capital of the Republika Srpska, Banja Luka, was being flooded with refugees and racked by panic and chaos, the US ultimately demanded the withdrawal of the Croatian Armed Forces.

Then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher explicitly demanded that the Croats withdraw or they would be faced with the possibility of air strikes by NATO. There were also reports that Christopher threatened Zagreb that Washington would support the integrating areas in Croatia where Serbs were the majority of the population with Serbia if the Croatian military captured Banja Luka. From today’s geopolitical perspective, the corrosive role Russia played at the time, which selflessly supported and trained the Croatian Armed Forces, is easily forgotten, while the role of the United States is either overlooked, falsified or misrepresented.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine makes it absurd to demand an explanation from official Belgrade about Serbia’s role in the global arms trade. Particularly when, as previously stated, Belgrade is committed to not exporting arms to parties involved in an ongoing conflict, and to tolerate direct exports to Ukraine to certain countries. Serbia is also committed to respecting the decisions of other countries’ arms export policies.

Turkey, for example, has directly supplied Ukraine with its powerful Bayraktar TB2 combat drones and cluster munitions. Russia has never demanded an explanation, nor has it exerted any diplomatic pressure on Ankara. Regardless of their ambivalent relationship, the Kremlin’s congenial support of Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and lucrative long-term cooperation, is a fait accompli for Moscow; no matter how many Russian soldiers have or will be killed by Turkish weapons.

Many say that Serbia is not Turkey, and they are right; it is not, nor will it ever be, especially in the context of emotions and cultural links with the Russian people. But that’s why the situation with Croatia, which has already announced the fifth package of military aid to the Ukrainian Armed Forces, is perhaps more interesting. Zagreb has already delivered to Kyiv small arms for four infantry brigades and about 15 Soviet-era M-46 cannons. The delivery of 14 Soviet Mi-8 transport helicopters is also being prepared. Despite the strategic military support for Croatia in the 1990s, and the largest investments in the region, Moscow has absolutely no objections to Zagreb, nor does it demand an explanation from the Croatian government.

Moscow is forcing neutral and non-aligned countries to reconsider integration into a Russia-led collective security system. This is precisely why Serbia should welcome a strategic rapprochement with Washington as it will represent an alternative to our constant defeats and gloomy prospects. Russia’s arrogant attitude and its dedication to its own interests force the people of Serbia to ask themselves if an emotional principle or diplomatic pragmatism in international relations is of greater interest to Serbia.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic shake hands following a press conference.

Crimes against the truth began in 1999, when the Serbian media spread misguided hopes that Russian arms would be delivered to Serbia and Moscow would not forget their friends, even though all the intelligence information that had been gathered said the opposite. For the Russians, at that time, restructuring their $380 billion debt for the next twenty years was more important than the fate of Serbia and its citizens.

When Maria Zakharova publicly opposes our views on friendship and says that Russians always support their friends in difficult times, then it should be completely clear that Serbs do not see friendship the same way. Apparently, as a rule, Moscow’s true friends were not on Serbia’s side, but they did not hesitate to impose sanctions on Russia.

No one from the Russian establishment has remembered to politely thank Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic for postponing the complete harmonization of Belgrade’s foreign policy with the EU; thereby imposing sanctions on Russia.

Regardless of the Russian arming of Croatia, the unanimous vote for sanctions against Yugoslavia, or the fact that they were the only vote against the Paris Club debt write-off in 2001, the world should understand that at that time these were precisely Russia’s interests. However, foreign policy should not be based on reciprocity, but on national values and interests. Although Moscow perceives Serbia as a trading currency in the geopolitical market of great powers. Serbia believes that its destiny is not to be betrayed by beliefs, friends, allies or history. Its destiny is to avoid expensive misadventures and find refuge in peace, stability and prosperity for the country’s youth.

Injustice, from my point of view, is just as destructive as hypocrisy. You could argue that they are two identical versions of the same immorality. Diplomatic hypocrisy should be left to others. In contrast, Serbia should build a foreign policy identity that should be clear, and the orientation towards the West should be automatic and undisputed. Continued delusions are too expensive if having to pay for the future of a country. Paraphrazing Britain’s mid-19th-century prime minister, Lord Palmerston, “We must be aware that Serbia has neither eternal allies nor perpetual enemies. Only our national interests should be eternal and perpetual, and it is everyone’s duty to follow them.”

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Executive Director of the Belgrade-based Council for Strategic Policy. A retired navy captain and former defense attaché in London, he is the co-founder and CEO of the CfSP.
Lunic has also held various positions in the Serbian Armed Forces responsible
 for the formulation and integration of defense policy in relation to political-military relations, security assistance, technology and information, as well as the exchange of military and diplomatic activities in support of the objectives of the Serbian government,

including being involved in the planning and implementation of cooperation between Belgrade, the UN, OSCE, EU and NATO, within the Partnership for Peace Program. Most recently, he worked as an expert of the OSCE Mission in Serbia.


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