Russia, Serbia, and Belarus recently held joint tactical military exercises dubbed ‘Slavic Brotherhood 2021’ in Novorossiysk, on Russia’s Black Sea coast. The drills brought together 100 members of the Serbian army’s Special Forces unit, 350 troops of the Vitebsk Guards airborne unit of the Belarusian special operations forces, and more than 500 from the Novorossiysk Guards Mountain Air Assault Division. This comes barely a month after Serbia and Russia launched joint military exercises near Serbia’s capital in response to massive NATO drills in neighboring Balkan states, in what appeared to be Moscow’s resolve to maintain influence in the European region torn by wars during the 1990s.
The ‘Slavic Brotherhood’ exercise is an important venue for enhancing cooperation and interoperability among their respective special forces. They have been hosted on a rotational basis for several years in Russia, Belarus, and Serbia respectively. Apart from the obvious military aspect, the war games have geopolitical value as well. This was succinctly worded by Serbia’s then-Defense Minister Aleksandar Vulin who in 2019 stated that such war games demonstrated how Serbia had allies in case of “any future war in the Balkans” and that “we are no longer alone.”
So what brings together an ostensibly EU-aspiring Balkan nation with a pariah state such as Belarus and an ever more assertive and aggressive Russia that is adamant on recreating the once expansive Tsarist empire?
Pan-Slavic ties and the Orthodox Church
To start with, all three are bound by pan-Slavic ties, Orthodox Christian bonds and a constellation of strategic interests. Take Serbia and Russia for example. Back in the 1990s, then-President of rump Yugoslavia (essentially a union of Serbia and Montenegro) Slobodan Milošević was seen by the West as an outlaw. Because his paramilitary forces were marauding and committing genocidal violence against Bosniak Muslims and Kosovar Albanians in neighboring countries, the international community decidedly ostracized him. Having hardly any friends left and under Western sanctions, he turned to Russia and Belarus. Despite rhetorical support from Moscow and Minsk, Serbia remained impoverished, isolated, and deeply entrenched in its bloody nationalism for years to come.
That is until Aleksandar Vučić came to power in 2014.
A former ultranationalist, Vučić rebranded himself as the poster-boy for EU integration and leader of a ‘new Serbia’. Steering a country that had deep ties with Russia and China and in dire need of EU investments, he played a delicate balancing act between the different, often colliding political blocks, while at the same time trying to maintain his country’s geopolitical and military primacy in the Balkans.
So far as Serbia is concerned, Russia and China are useful for one major reason – their Security Council veto which keeps Kosovo unrecognized by the UN. From Moscow’s and Beijing’s view, this is their trump card in relations with Serbia. Unbeknownst to many, a likely agreement between Serbia and Kosovo would leave both Russia and China with little to offer to its Balkan ally. Then, there is trade. In 2019, Serbia signed a free trade agreement with the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) replacing bilateral free trade agreements Serbia previously signed with Russia and Belarus.
MiGs and tanks
On the other hand, Russia, continues vying for influence to keep fellow Orthodox Christian Serbia out of NATO and the EU, and within its sphere of geopolitical influence. Moscow is pushing to expand military ties with Belgrade as a way to stymie NATO expansion in the region. Apart from Serbia, Moscow is also using Bosnian Serbs and the semi-autonomous Republic of Srpska to block Bosnia and Herzegovina from joining the Western military alliance. Moscow even announced the opening of its Defense ministry office in Serbia’s capital, Belgrade, and has donated huge amounts of weaponry. Back in 2017, Russia donated six used MiG-29 fighter jets to Serbia; in 2018, it donated 11 T-72 tanks and 10 infantry fighting vehicles; in 2021 it donated 30 T-72MS tanks and 30 BRDM-2MS armored reconnaissance vehicles to the Serbian Army.
Serbian politics have long been dominated by pro-Russian politicians. There are few who would dare criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is popular among Serbs.
Although it is commonly assumed that the partnership between Belgrade and Moscow is impermeable to bilateral disputes, several recent disagreements have illustrated just how feeble their relations may be. This was seen following the signing of an agreement between Kosovo and Serbia in the White House last year after which Maria Zakharova, spokeswomen for Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, insulted Serbian President Vučić. He in turn called her ‘vulgar’ and ‘primitive’. Nevertheless, mutual interests prevailed.
Likewise, relations between Belarus and Russia continue to baffle observers with their unpredictability. Last year, there was a major spat when authorities in Belarus arrested thirty-three suspected Russian ‘mercenaries’ from the Wagner private contractor group, accusing them of plotting terrorist activity ahead of the country’s disputed presidential elections. However, given that Russia almost singlehandedly saved President Lukashenko following last year’s massive anti-government protests, Lukashenko now has little room for maneuver. Moscow has even more reasons to push for a union with Belarus, or at least for greater military integration. Deepening its military integration with Belarus is beneficial for two reasons: it will limit Minsk’s ability to conduct foreign and security policy independently and more importantly, it gives Russia additional security in the western strategic direction, including for its second-most-populous city, St. Petersburg. For Belarus, a full-scale merger with Moscow would be tantamount to a loss of sovereignty. However, it is heavily reliant on Moscow from subsidized fuel to regime protection.
In this triangle of relations, Belarus has firm cooperation and trade ties with Serbia. In 2015, Serbia and Belarus signed a memorandum on military cooperation. Serbia received eight MiG-29 fighter jets (which needed to be revamped) from Belarus between 2018 and 2019. Despite being isolated by the international community, Lukashenko visited Serbia’s capital as recently as in 2019. During the NATO bombardment of Serbia in 1999 in an attempt to halt massacres against Kosovar Albanians by Serbian forces, Belarussian President Lukashenko visited Belgrade. During Lukashenko’s 2019 official visit to Belgrade, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić exclaimed “We will never forget your visit in 1999. You were the only world leader who, at a time when it was hard for Serbia, came and wanted to show how much you love the Serbian people and our Serbia”.
Their economic ties are not dynamic: in late 2019, Belarus was the 34th largest partner of Serbia in terms of exports and 37th in terms of imports. Though the EU is still the largest trade partner and investor in Serbia, outweighing both Russia and Belarus, the Serbian leadership sees little incentive in giving up on its ties with Lukashenko and Putin.
Then, there are the oligarchs. Belarus has given away about $1 billion worth of land to construction companies owned by Serbia's well-connected Karić family. Since the Karić brothers are close to Serbia’s ruling coalition and influential in shaping Belgrade’s policy towards Minsk, close ties between the two states are likely to stay.
Russia’s long arm
There is no doubt that Moscow is the main driving force behind ongoing efforts to strengthen its relations with Minsk and Belgrade. Over the past decade, Russia has fostered numerous connections with the goal of creating various levers of influence and friendly constituencies that would allow it to inhibit further EU and NATO integration. In doing so, it has played on shared historical, religious and cultural ties as a basis to further its military, political and economic relations.
To buttress these efforts, Moscow has actively exacerbated existing political cleavages and social fissures not only in Serbia but in Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina as well, thereby giving itself the power to influence local politics by breaking the political consensus so far as strategic decisions are concerned. Its media outlets have lionized Russian military might and Vladimir Putin as a leader, while simultaneously demonizing NATO and depicting the EU as cripplingly inefficient and over-bureaucratic. Moscow has also taken advantage of corruption and lack of transparency in both Serbia and Belarus to curry favor with local political, media, and economic elites, thereby opening up commercial opportunities for Kremlin-friendly companies. Such efforts have fueled democratic backsliding and political polarization in the Balkans, while strengthened the hand of the ruling regime in Belarus.
Its foreign policy success in Serbia and in the wider Balkan region is the consequence of the unresolved Kosovo dispute which makes Serbia dependent on Moscow’s and Beijing’s veto power to prevent the UN’s recognition of its former province. A second reason is the power vacuum generated by the untimely pull-out of the United States from the Balkans and the subsequent inability of the EU to finalize its Balkan enlargement. As for Minsk, it has consistently sought to achieve a normalization of its own relations with Brussels and Washington. Nevertheless, EU and U.S. unwillingness to talk to ‘the last dictator in Europe’ essentially served Belarus on a silver plate back to Moscow.
Unlike Belarus, Serbia still manages to retain a high level of independence in its foreign policy decisions. It plays both sides: talking the reform and pro-Western talk in Brussels and Washington, and the pan-Slavic talk in Minsk and Moscow. Moscow’s activities in the Balkans help steer Western attention away from its de facto privatization of the Sea of Azov and the Kerch straits, as well as its continuing hybrid war in eastern Ukraine.