Serbs, Russians in first joint military exercise
NIKINCI, Serbia — Camouflage-clad Russian soldiers parachute from the sky, armored vehicles fire live rounds on an open field after being dropped from military transport jets, and helicopters fire missiles against enemy positions.
Although the flat terrain resembles the Ukrainian war zones, this is not an armed Russian intervention against its neighbor. It’s the first joint Serb-Russian military exercise in Serbia, the Balkan country that has been performing a delicate balancing act in between its Slavic ally Russia and Western Europe, with which Belgrade wants to integrate.
The “anti-terrorist” drill on Friday — the first such by the Russians outside the former Soviet Union — of elite Russian troops in northern Serbia, not far from NATO member Croatia, has stirred controversy both here and abroad.
“Serbia’s government wants to try and keep everyone happy,” said prominent Balkan political analyst Tim Judah. “So the U.S. helps finance and modernize Serbia’s army while now Serbian soldiers train with Russians. In normal times there would be little to say about this, but post-Crimea, these are not normal times anymore.”
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the military exercise was regrettable.
“Although it is our understanding that this Russian-Serbian joint military drill had been planned for some time, we regret that Serbia decided to proceed. In light of Russia’s actions in Ukraine and its disregard of international law and norms, this is no time for ‘business as usual’ with Russia,” Psaki told The Associated Press.
Although Serbian officials say they respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity and do not support Russia’s annexation of Crimea, they have refused to impose sanctions against Russia like the European Union and the United States. Russia and Serbia have traditionally close historic and cultural ties, and Moscow has backed Belgrade’s bid to maintain its claim over Kosovo — a former Serbian province that declared independence in 2008 with the support of Washington and its allies.
Russian President Vladimir Putin was in Belgrade last month where he received a hero’s welcome that included a Soviet-style military parade. The head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, arrived in Belgrade on Friday.