Russian and Belarusian troops arrive in Serbia for weeklong military drill

By bne IntelliNews November 3, 2016

Soldiers from Russia and Belarus arrived in Belgrade on November 2 to hold the third annual Slavic Brotherhood military exercise together with members of the Serbian armed forces, Serbia’s ministry of defence announced. The drills will last from November 3 to November 9,

Serbia’s official position is to remain militarily neutral. Belgrade wants to reach the highest level of military cooperation with Nato and Nato members, as well as with Russia, and to keep participating in UN peacekeeping missions worldwide. Belgrade has said it does not plan to join either Nato or the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), comprising Russia and other CIS countries. 

Serbia’s close ties with Russia and especially the joint military drills have been strongly criticised, as they are seen as contrary to its commitment to become a full EU member within the next four years. On the other hand, while Russia has claimed not to oppose Serbia’s EU membership, Moscow has openly stated that joining Nato would be “red line” that Serbia should not pass.

According to the ministry’s November 2 statement, the tactical exercise will be held at military airports and polygons in Serbia. 450 Serbs, 212 members of Russia’s Airborne Troops (VDV) and 56 members of Belarus’s Armed Forces will take part. 

“The goal of the exercise is, above all, to improve operative abilities for anti-terrorist operations together with members of the Russian and Belarusian armed forces,” Serbia’s Army Brigadier General Zoran Velickovic said.

The first three-nation Slavic Brotherhood exercise was held last year near Novorossiysk in the Russian Federation. Previously, the drill was held in northern Serbia in 2014 and only Russians and Serbs participated. Also in 2014, Serbia’s military participated in 20 international military exercises and mostly with the US, Nato and Nato countries. 

The timing of the Slavic Brotherhood coincides with Nato’s exercise Crna Gora 2016 in Montenegro, from October 31 to November 4. Montenegro is expected to become Nato’s 29th member within the next few months. This has been strongly opposed by Russia, which has warned that the smallest Balkan country should give up plans to join the alliance. Russia tried unsuccessfully to prevent pro-Nato Montenegrin leader Milo Djukanovic from winning elections held on October 16. Montenegro is also striving towards EU membership, and is likely to become the EU’s 29th member as well.

Crna Gora 2016, organised by Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre (EADRCC) and the Montenegrin interior ministry, is an exercise open to Nato allied and partner nations. The scenario for the field exercise focuses on international response to floods and chemical incidents, according to Nato’s statement.

The military drills currently underway in the two former Yugoslavian states raised speculation that the exercises could put pressure on their bilateral relations. These were already strained after on the night of October 15, Montenegrin police arrested 20 Serbian paramilitaries on suspicion of planning to disrupt the elections the following day. 

The current joint drill with Russian and Belarusian solders is happening in as Serbia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Ivica Dacic steps up his rhetoric against the EU and Western countries. Dacic is currently leading a Serbian delegation to Suzdal, Russia, to attend the 12th session of the Intergovernmental Serbian-Russian Committee for Trade, Economic and Scientific and Technical Cooperation.

Dacic is seen as “Russia’s man” within the Serbian government but his current statements look like an attempt to attract voters ahead of the presidential elections in spring 2017. Usually, as the president of the Serbian Socialist Party (SPS), Dacic runs in presidential elections even though he has not yet taken a significant share of the vote. 

“No one is forcing Serbia to choose between the European Union and the Russian Federation… but, if it would happen it wouldn’t be good as Serbia would, of course, chose Russia,” Dacic said on November 1.

He expressed the hope that by the time Serbia becomes an EU member, Russia and the EU will have solved their mutual problems so Serbia will not have to adjust its foreign policies. Alignment of Serbia’s foreign policy with the EU’s is covered by the EU negotiation Chapter 31, which Serbia has not yet opened. 

Dacic continued this theme on November 2, when he said that Serbia's trade exchange with Russia dropped by 25% last year, and that this was "an obvious consequence [of Serbia’s EU integration] that should be stopped.”

“The EU does not look kindly on Serbia's cooperation with Russia and China,” Dacic said on November 2, B92 reported.

EU members accounted for 64.7% of Serbia’s total external trade through September 2016.


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