Serbia’s new president, Aleksandar Vučić, is clearly trying to maintain a balance between the West and the East when it comes to military matters. How else to view his recent statements concerning Belgrade’s ambition to acquire S-300 surface-to-air missile systems from either Russia or Belarus? That remark was made only a few days after talks were held between Serbia’s head of state and US Senator John McCain, who promised Serbia that America would provide it with in-depth military and technical assistance, while simultaneously cautioning Belgrade against expanding its cooperation with Russia.
At the moment Serbia has ample room to maneuver when it comes to purchasing modern air-defense systems, as Belgrade currently has no agreement in place with any country. With respect to Russia - informal discussions on this topic were being held back in the 1990s during the era of Slobodan Milošević, but the then-leader of Serbia and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia limited himself to a «declaration of intent», wanting to avoid a collision course with the West, while clearly eager to use the question of Serbia’s potential purchases of S-300 systems as a bargaining chip with the United States and NATO.
But now this question seems much less hypothetical. «No agreement exists in regard to the S-300», Aleksandar Vučić acknowledged. «I brought it up during talks with President Putin, and we discussed it. And I’ve discussed it with President Lukashenko».
Moscow is currently in no rush to either confirm or deny any information about the progress of negotiations over shipments of S-300 SAMs to Serbia. Responding to questions from the Russian and Serbian media, Dmitry Peskov, President Putin’s press secretary, has noted that this issue is classified as «sensitive» and that such issues are the subject of meetings held at the highest levels.
In addition, the president of Serbia has claimed that potential deliveries of MiG-29s and Russian armored vehicles to Belgrade were under discussion during his recent talks with Vladimir Putin in Moscow.
It is important to note that this information about Serbia’s interest in Russian surface-to-air missile systems has emerged against a backdrop of «fake news» stories (clearly deliberately planted) in the Croatian media about alleged Russian shipments of S-300 SAMs to Croatia in the 1990s, in violation of the UN embargo. The president of Serbia has also chimed in, emphasizing that once the Russian government officially denied those charges, the subject was closed. In addition, as Vučić pointed out, an S-300 SAM system is «not some tiny needle that can be hidden away».
The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs had previously issued a statement denying that Russian missile systems had been shipped to Croatia in violation of the UN embargo. Artyom Kozhin, the deputy director of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Information and Press Office, stressed in a statement made from Smolensk Square that «Russia has consistently complied with its international legal obligations, including those relating to the embargo against supplying arms to the warring parties during the Yugoslav crisis from 1991-1995... We consider these articles to be a provocative, crude distortion of the facts, intended to discredit the policy of the Russian Federation in the Balkans».
It also emerged that the «fake news» about the deliveries of Russian SAMs to Croatia had been created by anti-Russian circles in Zagreb, Kiev, and Washington simultaneously. As the Serbian newspaper Politika consequently noted, the route of the S-300s «began in Ukraine, passed through Zagreb, and ended up in the US».
In this incident, the goal of Ukraine’s leaders was to portray Russia as a malevolent transgressor of UN rules and an «arms smuggler», in order to use this pretext to retreat from their own commitments under the Minsk negotiations to resolve the predicament in the Donbass. Croatia has sought to undermine Russian-Serbian cooperation in military and political matters. And for certain groups in Washington, the myth about the purported shipments of S-300 SAMs to Croatia has been used to ramp up the pressure on President Donald Trump, to play on his political weaknesses and force him to assume a more hard-line posture in regard to Russia on such pressing issues as Syria, Iran, and North Korea.
As we all know, the end justifies any means when it comes to the information wars, and stratagems as powerful as surface-to-air missile systems are particularly good. Even phantom ones resulting from a Ukrainian-Croatian-American con game.