A U.S. official is expected to arrive in Belgrade on Friday to discuss the purchase of advanced Russian anti-aircraft missile systems which could expose Serbia to U.S. sanctions.
Serbia’s military depends heavily on Russian and former Soviet weapons technology, but Russia’s arms sales have been hit by U.S. sanctions over its role in the conflict in east Ukraine.
Serbian news agency Beta said Thomas Zarzecki, an envoy for the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, would discuss compliance with the sanctions during a visit that has not been announced by the U.S. embassy.
Embassy officials could not be reached for comment and the U.S. State Department did not reply to emailed questions.
Serbia has recently purchased Pantsir anti-aircraft missile launchers from Russia and deliveries are expected in the next few months. In recent years, Belgrade has also bought Russian MiG-29 jets, helicopters, tanks and armored personnel carriers.
U.S. concerns grew last month when Russia sent its S-400 missile defense system and Pantsir launchers to Serbia for a military drill. The move underlined Moscow’s wish to keep a traditional Slavic ally on side as Belgrade pursues links with NATO and tries to join the European Union.
Matthew Palmer, a U.S. envoy for the Balkans, said last week that Serbia could risk sanctions over its arms deals with Russia. Under the sanctions, Serbia could face punishments ranging from visa bans to denial of export licenses.
Late on Thursday, President Aleksandar Vucic urged Serbs not to fear broad sanctions would be imposed on Serbia similar to those of the 1990s during the Balkan wars.
“When the U.S. are deciding about such sanctions … they are imposing it against a company or an individual, not against an entire nation,” he said.
Serbia declared military neutrality in 2006 and joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace program in 2015, though it is not seeking full membership of the U.S.-led alliance.
Serbia has also relied on Russia for support in its refusal to recognize the independence of its former southern province of Kosovo, which seceded in 2008 after a guerrilla uprising. NATO peacekeepers remain in Kosovo.
Serbia does not intend to purchase Russian-made S-400 air defense missile systems, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said in an interview with the RTS national television on Wednesday.
Vucic earlier attended the Slavic Shield-2019 Russian-Serbian drills where he personally examined S-400 surface-to-air missile systems and a battery of Pantsyr-S anti-aircraft missile/gun launchers. After examining the S-400s, the Serbian leader said that one day Serbia would be able to buy these systems but currently the country lacked 500 million euros for their purchase. At the same time, Vucic said Serbia was ready to accept S-400s from Russia as a gift.
The US was quick to respond to Vucic’s statement. US Special Representative for the Western Balkans Matthew Palmer warned in an interview with the Macedonian television during his visit to Skopje that the purchase of S-400 systems from Russia would entail US sanctions against Belgrade.
The Serbian leader’s reaction shows that Serbia perceives the US warning seriously.
“What I have seen is an impressive weapon. We have no intention to purchase [the S-400 system] because we have no money to pay for it, considering the construction of motorways and numerous projects. You know, when you have such a weapon, no one would attack you. Neither US nor any other pilots fly where S-400s are operational: Israeli pilots do not fly either over Turkey or Syria, except for the Golan Heights. We have aviation, which the strongest than ever before. We will be strengthening the air defense with Pantsyr systems and other things, which are not on the sanctions list,” he said.
The Večernje Novosti newspaper earlier reported that the Serbian authorities were considering buying S-400 surface-to-air missile systems on long-term credit. The paper also said that 14 Serbian planes simulated a notional enemy during the drills. All of them were notionally shot down within less than three minutes by an S-400 system that fired 26 missiles. The paper also said that a group of Serbian officers had alreadyundergone training in Russia to learn to operate S-400 systems.