The strategic partnership established between Russia and Serbia has been reaffirmed with the spread of the pandemic of the Coronavirus in Serbia. Serbia was poorly prepared for the Coronavirus, so it sought help from Russia. On behalf of the Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Federation Armed Forces, President Vladimir Putin, instructions were given to create an air group to expeditiously deliver assistance to Serbia in the fight against the spread of coronavirus infection. Shortly after the request of Serbia, 11 military transport aircrafts IL-76 of the Russian Air Force landed in Serbia. The Russian army sent to Serbia 87 military physicians, specialist virologists, special medical equipment, protective equipment and 16 units of military equipment.
However, the assistance received from Russia’s armed forces to fight the Coronavirus is only part of a process that has been going on for years, allowing the Serbian Army to regain its old glory. Namely, since 2016, Serbia has begun a major rebuilding of its armed forces, with significant success. According to an annual survey by the US military site Global Fire Power, which takes into account 55 different factors, Serbia is the strongest military power in the Western Balkans. Currently, Serbia is ranked 65, while Croatia is ranked 69th. According to the survey, Slovenia ranks 100th, Albania 115th, Montenegro 123rd, Macedonia 127th, Bosnia and Herzegovina 133rd.
After many years of not investing in the armed forces, Serbia began to invest more seriously in rebuilding its army. According to information obtained by the Balkan Security Network, Serbia has spent close to € 830 million since December 2016 on the acquisition of new war techniques and modernization of the armed forces, including overhaul and maintenance of weapons and military equipment. This can be calculated from the final accounts of the budget for the period 2016 – 2018 and from the Budget Law for 2019. In the 2018 budget alone, under classification 512, a record 182.6 million euros was approved for military defense. The decision of the Government of Serbia of 7 October increased the budget for arms purchases to around 233.48 million Euro. When all expenditures are calculated, it is estimated that 356.25 million euros will be spent in 2019. And in 2020, according to the budget, it is foreseen to spend significantly less money compared to last year, arround 218.32 million euros. From all the above it is clear that the total funds for modernization will exceed one billion euros, which clearly indicates the seriousness of the modernization of the Serbian army.
The situation in the region is such that only a strong army can guarantee peace. Russia plays a strong role in restoring the strength of the Serbian army. Russia, which, in addition to selling weapons without conditionality, also provides training for members of the Serbian army. It is especially important to emphasize that Russian military technology is cheaper than the Western one, and in many segments much better quality than from Western military technology.
Six MiG-29 jet fighter aircrafts donated by Russia to Serbia were put into operational use, and some of the main costs of activating them so far have included transportation, overhaul of one aircraft, minor overhaul of the remaining five aircrafts, life extension, bringing Russian jets to the level of existing ones (approximate level of MiG-29SD), procurement of spare parts, and other equipment. Immediately after it was announced that Russia will donate six MiG-29 fighter jets to Serbia, officials said that the entire arrangement would cost 185 million euros and that price would also apply to 4 Serbian MiG-29 fighter jets, a total of 10 jets. This should be spent in three phases, two of which have already been implemented, the third phase is already initiated and should be completed by the end of 2020. Also, in addition to the modernization package, it is inevitable to acquire a certain amount of aircraft weapons, which can be a major expense. Because the price of one R-77 air-to-air missile is around $ 1 million. When it comes to the four MiG-29 fighter jets donated by Belarus, they will be delivered in early 2021 and they will most likely arrive modernized. As the deadline for completion of the works is almost two years, it can be assumed that, apart from the general overhaul, it will also be a modernization, or will actually be something if not the same as phase three for the 10 existing Serbian MiG-29 fighter jets. Some real cost of these works in Belarus could be up to 10 million euros per plane. Defense Minister Alexander Vulin said there would be no delay in delivering four MiG-29 jets from Belarus.
“They will be part of our Air Force in early next year”, stated Serbian defense minister in an interview with the Serbian daily newspaper Politika.
In addition to 6 fighter jets MiG-29, Russia also donated to Serbia 30 T-72 tanks and 30 BRDM-2 armored reconnaissance vehicles. It is still not clear which version of the T-72 tanks Serbia will get. Although it was said to be a donation, the modernization of the armor, as well as everything else that goes with them, will be paid by Serbia. As for the BRDM-2, 10 armored personnel carriers have arrived in Serbia so far, and the rest is expected to come in the near future.
In October, three additional medium transport multipurpose Mi-17V-5 helicopters arrived from Russia to Serbia, slightly better equipped than the first two purchased in 2016. The price of the Mi-17V-5 ranges from $ 14 million to $ 22 million, depending on the version and the entire package it contains for training, equipment, armament and logistics. Serbia has also acquired 4 Russian Mi-35M assault helicopters. The price of this type of helicopter in the market ranges from $ 20 million to $ 30 million and in certain arrangements may exceed $ 30 million.
Despite the state of emergency due to the Coronavirus, the Serbian army has already conducted training on Mi-35M helicopters. It is important to point out that significant quantities of 9M120 Ataka anti-tank guided missile rockets have been purchased also. According to Lieutenant Colonel Drndarevic, Mi-35M crews were trained for action with Ataka guided missiles:
“It is a beautiful feeling to act with such a rocket, even in difficult weather conditions as it was today, but it turned out that the rocket fulfills all our requirements,” said Lt. Col. Drndarevic.
Serbia has finally begun a more serious renewal of its air defense. The Pantsir-S1 medium-range surface-to-air missile and anti-aircraft artillery system was purchased for that purpose. It should be noted that this system is not cheap at all, for a single vehicle should be allocated about $ 15 million, but then there are the costs of training, logistics, spare parts, additional missile kits, so the price can be over $ 20 million. On May 2, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic spoke while visiting an air defense unit near Belgrade that has recently been equipped with the Russian Pantsir-S1 system.
“This is a great support for the defense of our towns, protection of our infrastrcture and the strengthening of our military”, Vucic said. “We don`t want to attack anyone, we want to protect the future of our children.”
Vucic pointed out that the Pantsir-S1 is a system that targets 15 km in height, 20 km in distance and has the ability to fire 12 rockets, as well as being able to shoot 4 targets at a time. Vucic added that the sky of Serbia is now 10 times safer than it was 21 years ago and that Serbia will continue to equip its units. Also, in October, the President of Serbia announced the largest air force exercise.
In addition to buying weapons, joint military exercises have been held regularly for the last five years, in Russia and Serbia. The joint Russian-Serbian military exercise “ Slavic Shield ”, held last October in Serbia, has attracted much attention from the West. The reason for this was the arrival of the S-400 Triumph system, which is the most powerful long-range air defense system. It is also important to note that the S-500 air defense system has already been developed in Russia and is expected to enter the operational use of the Russian military in the second half of 2020. Without a doubt, Serbia needs the S-400 Triumph system. Belgrade needs an S-400 system that would deter the possibility of aggression against Serbia. In today`s world, nothing can so good guarantee the security of the state as strong air defense. Experiences from aggression against Serbia, Afganistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria teach us that only countries with strong air defense systems are states that can run an independent or neutral policy. But it is a misconception that one S-400 battery, as it is presented by significiant part of the Serbian analysts, is sufficient to protect the sky of Serbia. Serbia needs two S-400 missile batteries which could cost arround one billion euros. Also S-400 has never been designed to operate as stand-alone system and is most effective as part of a much wider integrated air defense systems. An effective air defense consists of layers of different types of surface to air missile systems – from the very short range to the very long range. It also incorporates many different radars and other sensors for the detection of different types of enemy targets. For Serbia, that means that in addition to the S-400, which is a long-range surface to air missile system and the Pantsir-S1, which is a short-range system, a medium-range surface to air missile system is required. And for Serbia, the Buk-M3 would be ideal. But, all of these surface to air missile systems are very expensive.
Bearing in mind that international financial institutions are predicting a 3% economic decline for Serbia this year due to the Coronavirus, it is clear that there will be a slowdown in further arms purchases. However, Serbia is projected to grow by as much as 7.5% next year. Also, since Serbia is also projected to strengthen its economy in the years ahead, then there is a real possibility that Serbia can complete its air-defense by purchasing Russian short, medium and long-term systems.
Last October, Deputy Prime Minister of Russia Yuri Borisov stated that Serbia has a package of orders of over $ 600 million, adding that “starting from the size of the army, no country has such a package of orders.” It is important to emphasize that Serbian military personnel study at Russian military universities. All of the above clearly indicates that a strategic partnership has been established between the Russian and Serbian military, which will only grow stronger in the years ahead.