Serbia mulls Russian Defense Ministry presence

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Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic speaks during a press conference after talks with European Union envoy for the negotiations Miroslav Lajcak in Belgrade, Serbia, Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020. The EU has mediated the talks between Belgrade and Pristina, the two former wartime foes for more than a decade. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)

BELGRADE – Serbia is thinking of allowing a Russian Defense Ministry presence in the Balkan country, something that could further strain its relations with the West.

Serbia’s Defense Ministry said in a statement Tuesday that “legal proceedings” have been launched that would allow an agreement between the two governments on the opening of a Russian Defense Ministry mission in Belgrade.

It said that the agreement would further strengthen military cooperation between the two countries.

The Russian government confirmed the tentative agreement. In a published decree it said the deal would give Russian officials stationed in Belgrade the right to visit Serbian military units which are armed with Russian weapons, following consent by the Serb side.

Media close to Serbia’s populist president, Aleksandar Vucic, praised the possible agreement, saying its goal is to help Belgrade create a strong army.

“Americans will go crazy,” read a headline by the pro-government Informer daily.

Despite formally seeking to join the European Union, Serbia has been strengthening close political and military ties with its Slavic ally Russia.

Last month, Serbia suspended all foreign military exercises on the eve of planned maneuvers together with Russia in Belarus, citing alleged pressure from the EU.

Serbia, which claims military neutrality, has pledged to stay out of NATO and refused to join Western sanctions against Russia for its policies in Ukraine. The Balkan country is the only remaining close Russian ally in the region and its neighbors are mostly NATO member states.

Russia’s arming of Serbia with warplanes, anti-aircraft systems and armored vehicles is watched with unease in the West amid lingering tensions in the Balkans, which went through a devastating civil war in the 1990s. NATO intervened in Serbia to stop a bloody Serb crackdown against Kosovo Albanian separatists in 1999.

NATO has refused to comment on the possible opening of Russian Defense Ministry offices in Belgrade, referring an AP request to Serbian and Russian authorities.

NATO has had experts stationed in Belgrade helping the Serbian military align with Western military standards.