A U.S. State Department official has expressed concern about Serbia’s interest in Russian air defense systems, warning Belgrade to be “careful and cautious” about buying them, in comments to North Macedonia television.
“We do of course have concerns not just about deployment of Russian military equipment on the territory of Serbia, but the possibility of Serbia acquiring significant Russian military systems,” Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs Matthew Palmer told the Elsat television channel, in an interview that aired late on Friday, November 8.
Palmer was referring to a recent deployment of a Russian S-400 air and missile defense system and a Pantsir-S anti-aircraft gun and missile system to Serbia for the Slavic Shield 2019 exercises.
It was the first time the two weapons systems had been used in military drills outside Russia, according to the Russian defence ministry, although Russia has deployed both systems in Syria.
The two systems provide a multi-layered air defense network considered by many to be among the best in the world.
Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic said his country would like to acquire the weapons, but that “the only way would be if Russia left them with us. Otherwise we do not have the means to procure them.”
Vucic had said on October 24 that Serbia had “placed an order” for the Pantsir system, which is designed to provide point air defense for installations against aircraft, helicopters, precision munitions, cruise missiles and drones. It combines short- to medium-range surface-to-air missiles with an anti-aircraft artillery weapon, and uses phased array radars for target acquisition and tracking.
Palmer, who has responsibility for the Western Balkans and the Aegean, told the Elsat: “We hope our Serbian partners will be careful and cautious about any such transactions.”
U.S. military ties with Serbia were more significant than Russia-Serbian relations, he argued.
“We have a strong military partnership with Serbia, I think in fact, arguably Serbia’s best military partner is the United States,” Palmer said. “We think it is more significant than anything the Russians do with Belgrade.”
“We will be careful, of course, because I don’t want Serbia to be exposed to sanctions from the greatest world power, independent of the fact that they would be entirely unjustified and unfair,” said Vucic in response, according to local media reports.
In July, NATO member Turkey received the first batch of Russia’s S-400 missile defense systems in a move that added to tensions with the U.S. In response, Turkey was excluded from the F-35 stealth fighter jet program. Since then, Turkey has entered talks to acquire additional S-400 systems.
If the F-35 is operated alongside the S-400, Russia may be able to obtain sensitive technical information about the new Joint Strike Fighter.
Serbia has historically close ties with Russia, which has provided backing over the delicate question of Kosovo, a former Serb province.
Moscow was not pleased when Montenegro, which like Serbia is a former Yugoslav republic, joined NATO in 2017, and is keen to maintain influence in the region.