Why does Russia tolerate export of Serbian weapons to Ukraine?

No country in Europe is as pro-Russian as Serbia, which still refuses to impose any sanctions on Russia. Despite this, the Kremlin has simply ignored the fact that Serbia has been exporting arms to Ukraine. How did this situation come about?

The revelation by the Financial Times that Serbia indirectly provided Ukraine with weapons worth 800 million euros came as a double surprise to many European political analysts.

Not only did the most pro-Russian country in Europe, which refuses to join any sanctions against Moscow, arm Russia’s greatest enemy, but the Kremlin also remained silent on the matter, as noted in an article written by Maxim Samorukov for Balkan Insight.

Samorukov is a fellow at Carnegie Europe, specializing in Russia’s relations with Central, Eastern, and Southeastern European countries. From 2015 to 2022, he was a fellow at the Moscow Carnegie Center until Russian authorities closed it.

Before joining Carnegie in 2015, Samorukov worked in Russian independent media as an international correspondent and columnist, covering topics such as Russian foreign policy and its relations with Central and Eastern Europe, as well as the Balkans.

Vučić’s Ability to Maintain the Kremlin’s Favour

In the article, he says that even the most aggressive commentators in Moscow have not condemned Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, who has again shown a rare ability to retain the Kremlin’s favour.

Vučić’s achievement is no small feat. Since the invasion of Ukraine began, Moscow has sacrificed old alliances and partnerships for military victory over Kyiv.

Russia abandoned its ally Armenia to face Azerbaijan on its own, so as not to divert forces from the Ukrainian front. Its long-standing partnership with Israel ended in exchange for Iranian drones. South Korea delayed joining sanctions against Russia, but Moscow sacrificed that good relationship in an instant, opting for ammunition from North Korea.

Belgrade has much less to offer Moscow than South Korea or Israel, while its contribution to Ukraine’s war efforts has proven quite significant. Serbian weapons deliveries were commercial and carried out indirectly through NATO states, but in terms of sheer value, they represent more help than any provided by the three Baltic states or outspoken Kyiv supporters like Spain or Croatia.

Serbian shells directly undermine Russia’s efforts to deplete Ukraine’s supplies, not to mention killing Russian soldiers. Vučić himself confirmed the scope of the deliveries while nonchalantly stating that he doesn’t care about the end user – as if, for example, the Czech Republic is currently buying shells for anyone other than Ukraine.

Even then, Russia did not react. Asked about it, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov mumbled something about talking with “our Serbian friends.” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova didn’t even mention it in her regular tirades against Russia’s real and imagined enemies, the article states.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko also remained silent, at least publicly, on the issue of weapons for Ukraine during his visit to Belgrade on July 1-2. The Russian embassy in Belgrade even took pains to deny media speculation that any controversies arose during Grushko’s meeting with Serbian officials.

“A Dear and Reliable Partner”

Moscow was not so taken aback by the news that it didn’t know how to react. Serbia’s arms deliveries to Ukraine have been an open secret at least since early 2023 when the first leaked data emerged. Moscow then promised to investigate the matter, but still praises Vučić as a dear friend and reliable partner.

Russia’s unusual restraint is a result of how Vučić manages Serbia’s relations with Russia. Coming from the murky world of post-communist politics, the Serbian leader knows well that Russian policies are not shaped by abstract national interests but by the constellation of personal agendas of its dignitaries.

Therefore, instead of trying to please Russia as a whole, it is much more profitable to nurture friends and silence critics within the regime.

Even the war in Ukraine and Russia’s isolation from Europe have not stopped Vučić’s networking in Moscow. In Vučić’s absence, his loyal henchman, Aleksandar Vulin, is now knocking on various doors in Moscow to keep Belgrade in the favour of the right people.

Vulin’s Visits to Moscow

During his successive terms as Minister of Defence, Minister of Interior and head of Serbia’s main intelligence agency, BIA, Aleksandar Vulin developed such a close relationship with Russian security chiefs that it led to his being placed on the US sanctions list in July 2023, which resulted in his temporary removal in November.

He spent the next five months as a private citizen, but the lack of official status did not prevent him from making three trips to Russia during that period, where he met with then-Secretary of the Security Council Nikolai Patrushev (twice), head of the Foreign Intelligence Service SVR Sergei Naryshkin (twice), and head of the Federal Security Service FSB Alexander Bortnikov.

Upon being reinstated as a member of the Serbian cabinet in May this year, his first visit, as the new Deputy Prime Minister for Cooperation with BRICS countries was, predictably, to Moscow. There he met with the new Secretary of the Russian Security Council Sergei Shoigu, Minister of Interior Vladimir Kolokoltsev, and other top security and foreign policy officials.

Regardless of Vulin’s formal duties, his mission remains the same: to establish personal connections with leading Russian strongmen, shower them with the coarsest flattery, and convince them that Vučić is the best ally Moscow can have in the Balkans.

The Path of Weapons from Serbia to Ukraine

Vreme’s article about Serbian arms exports to Ukraine recalls that while Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić claims the state is doing everything to ensure lethal weapons are not used to kill “Serbian brothers” – neither Russian nor Ukrainian – it is no longer disputed that the Ukrainian army is massively using Serbian weapons.

According to the Financial Times, largely confirmed by Vučić, nearly a billion euros worth of Serbian weapons have already ended up with Ukrainians since the war began.

Photos from the front prove that those are often new weapons and ammunition. Which reach the front from Serbian factories via third parties. But how? Who are the intermediaries? Is it possible that the Serbian authorities don’t know that weapons, whose export is controlled by the Ministry of Defence, end up in the hands of Ukrainians?

Vreme’s investigation shows that there is a lot of politics in this complicated scheme and that the scheme operates through dubious intermediaries who buy in Serbia and then sell to the Pentagon and Ukrainians. There are also Russian oligarchs under sanctions and, of course, Serbian exporters close to the ruling party.

Americans Just Passing on Serbian Weapons

The United States has recently increased imports of weapons from Serbia. According to the Serbian chamber, most of last year’s imports consisted of “unclassified military goods.” However, according to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), American importers bought 267 artillery systems, 3,200 rockets, and five armoured vehicles in Serbia. From Yugoimport,” a state-owned company producing arms, US buyers acquired about sixteen million small-calibre bullets.

“Given that the weapons used by US military forces are significantly more sophisticated than those produced in Serbia, it is reasonable to assume that the United States is transferring weapons from Serbia to a third party,” Katarina Đokić, a researcher at SIPRI, told Vreme.

Reuters published a confidential Pentagon document in April listing how European countries have aided Ukraine. It specifically states that the Serbian government refused to train Ukrainian soldiers but agreed to supply or has already supplied weapons to Ukraine.

“Everyone knows that’s how it goes”

Vreme’s source in Belgrade, close to the authorities and experienced in the defence sector, confirms that arms delivery contracts include clauses about the “end user.” In translation, the weapon should be used by the one to whom it is sold, not passed on.

“But no one respects such contracts anymore,” the source says.

When asked if the authorities in Belgrade are then aware that the weapons they sell, for example, to American private wholesalers end up in Ukraine, this source says: “Everyone knows that’s how it goes.”

(Vreme, 08.07.2024)


This post is also available in: Italiano

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