Military neutrality of Serbia, an act to balance between Russia and the NATO

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and Prime Minister of Serbia Aleksandar Vučić (Belgrade, November 2015)

Serbia, which hopes to join the European Union, declared military neutrality in 2006 and joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace program, though it does not seek full membership in the Western defense alliance.

Serbia is the only state in the Western Balkans that is not seeking NATO membership. In December 2007, Serbia declared military neutrality and developed very close relations with Moscow despite its EU membership aspirations.

Serbia is decreasing enthusiasm for building cooperative security in the PfP framework and balancing between NATO and the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO).

Serbia is deepening its political dialogue and cooperation with NATO on issues of common interest, with an essential focus on support for democratic, institutional and defence reforms. While Serbia is pursuing European Union (EU) membership, unlike other Western Balkan partners, it does not aspire to join the Alliance.

The NATO Military Liaison Office in Belgrade, established in December 2006, supports Serbian defence reforms, facilitates Serbian participation in activities of the PfP programme and provides assistance to NATO’s public diplomacy activities in the region.

In July 2021, Serbia will complete its most recent IPAP, at which point it will either be renewed or transition to the new Individually Tailored Partnership Programme (ITPP).

Serbia joined the Planning and Review Process (PARP) in 2007 to develop the capacity of its forces to participate in UN-mandated multinational operations and EU crisis management operations. PARP also serves as a planning tool to guide and measure progress in defence and military transformation efforts.

In 2017, Serbia launched its second National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security for 2017-2020. Serbia is associated with the NATO/EAPC Policy and Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security, which was endorsed at the NATO Brussels Summit in 2018.  Moreover, together with the United States, Serbia led a series of NATO-funded expert workshops to develop a scorecard, or set of indicators, to help assess how NATO and partner countries are mainstreaming gender in military operations.

NATO and Serbia are close partners and have already developed excellent cooperation in the field of defence and security, in which the Alliance helps the Serbian army to strengthen its capacities, NATO Secretary Stoltenberg said.

“Serbia is a sovereign country, and we fully respect the security arrangements it chooses […] It is important to pay attention to the total costs that relate to the entire life of such equipment, as they can be large,” Stoltenberg said in an interview for Serbian daily Kurir, published on Sep. 2020.

Serbia is the third country to acquire an FK-3 radar-guided surface-to-air missile system from China despite the US warnings that such a deal could compromise the country’s European Union integration efforts.

Beijing sees Serbia as part of its One Belt, One Road initiative, which is aimed at opening new foreign trade links for Chinese companies. China has invested billions of euros in the Balkan country, mainly in soft loans, infrastructure and energy projects, reported Reuters on Aug 2020.

In late June, Serbia’s air force received six CH-92A combat drones armed with laser-guided missiles, the first such deployment of Chinese unmanned aerial vehicles in Europe.

Serbia’s military is based on former Soviet technology, and in recent years Belgrade has procured MiG-29 fighter jets and missiles, helicopters, tanks and armoured personnel carriers from Russia. Serbia’s military-industrial complex is highly dependent on Russia’s technical and financial aid to sustain its military industry.

Until now, the neutral status of Serbia has been presented in the public domain as not joining NATO and balancing between NATO and Russia. The other side of the coin is about its cost or the practical consequences of joining NATO abruptly and collapsing its military industries.

Serbia is taking some time to adapt and improve its military until it can fully integrate with NATO standards like the Ukrainian military. Serbia and NATO aim to improve public information on NATO-Serbia cooperation. The NATO Military Liaison Office in Belgrade plays an essential role in this process. 

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