Shortly after the October 20th visit of the head of Russia’s Civil Intelligence Sergey Naryshkin, an S-400 division and Panzer rocket-artillery system arrived in Serbia. They are supposed to take part in the second part of the joint military drills ‘Slavic shield – 2019’ that will span October 23-29th. The news generated fresh concerns about a possible permanent deployment of the S-400, leading to widespread geopolitical repercussions.
More than 200 Serbian military experts were flown to Russia two months ago to take part in the first leg of the ‘Slavic Shield-2019’ military drills in the region of Astrakhan, which included training and live-fire tests with S-400.
This summer, NATO-member Romania banned the river transport of Russian armored vehicles to Serbia. Russia then flew them over NATO member Hungary by declaring a civilian flight transport. This time, Russian transport planes flew over NATO member Bulgaria. The Bulgarian government of Prime Minister Borissov has remained mute on the issue, declining to disclose grounds on which it allowed the flight over its territory.
In an interview of the Serbian Sputnik channel, the new Serbian Ambassador to Moscow, former military journalist Miroslav Lazanski, referred questions on the pending deployment of S-400 to President Vucic and President Putin, insisting this should be addressed only at their level. Ambassador Lazanski went on to say that the two presidents had been contemplating ‘something big’ in secrecy for quite some time. The last push happened during their recent meetings.
The critical question is whether the S-400 complex will leave Serbia anytime soon.
Russian media sources have alluded to an optional deployment in the joint Russian-Serbian Humanitarian Center in Nis.
The center, disguised as an NGO, is, in reality, an active Russian military base. An alternative site for S-400 deployment is a base near Belgrade.
If deployed, the system will control the air space of significant parts of Bulgaria (the capital Sofia is just 135 km away), the whole of Kosovo, Northern Macedonia, Croatia, Bosna and Herzegovina, Hungary, Monte Negro, Albania, and even Greece (if located in Nis).
Russian experts insist that the air transportation of the S-400 for participation in drills is different from deployment after purchase. Neighboring NATO countries are unlikely to allow access to their air space of military hardware that will pose a threat to their national security. There are, however, ample cases in the past when Russia has supplied weapons formally destined for drills while remaining after that permanently.
It is hard to imagine that Belgrade could conceive or initiate such a move on its own. Moving S-400 around is something well above Vucic’s grade. A purchase deal is off the cards, even under the most lenient of sales terms.
This move fits well into Kremlin’s geostrategic playbook of a military comeback to the Balkans.
The pretext is almost antique – to protect the Slav brethren, or in more pragmatic verbiage – to defend Moscow’s last stronghold against NATO in the Balkans.
Russian media claims the S-400 in Serbia could serve a operators’ training center, adding a business underpinning to the justification on the Kremlin side for deployment. The main idea behind this deployment comes out of a meeting of Serbian Defense Minister Alexander Vulin with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in August near Moscow. Besides beefing up Serbian Army’s combat capability by building an air defense center, Russia seeks to give an asymmetrical response to the deployment of NATO integrated air defense systems in Poland and Romania and the purchase of the F-16s in Croatia, Romania, and Bulgaria. This game plan also implies a potential setup of an AD/A2 (Anti-Access Air Denial) system, in addition to those in Kaliningrad, Crimea, and Syria.
The Kremlin is testing a new strategic paradigm in relations with the EU and NATO – where Serbia, while using Russian defense systems and guarantees, accedes the EU, but defies NATO.
President Putin has been quick to use cracks in the EU and NATO, which have emerged in the last three years. Events in Syria and Turkey have boosted Russia’s chances, a rare boon, given the country’s sinking economy.
Growing frustration among West Balkan countries with their accession track to EU, the latest associated with Macron’s veto, provides a fertile ground for a redivivus of nationalism, triggering a search for EU/NATO alternatives. The absurd precondition that before acceding to the EU, societies in candidate countries should reach full consensus, also contributes to the stalemate. This ultimatum hands Russia a near veto power on EU accession. It could quickly mobilize pro-Russian circles in tandem with radical nationalists, denying a consensus.
All the geopolitical gravity around Serbia in the last week – the sequence of high-level visits, the deployment of the S-400, and the accession to the Eurasian Economic Union – follow a pattern, part of a comprehensive gameplan.
Vucic and Putin share a nostalgia and a revanchist grievance – over the loss of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. The Serbian President believes he should use the Erdogan strong-arm tactic to engage with Russia, before seeking concessions from the West.
Even if the S-400 cargo leaves Serbia at the end of the drills, the message is – we could do it again.
President Putin might opt to sacrifice economic gains for geopolitical benefits and decide to disguise the deployment as a permanent joint operation, helping Serbia’s air-defense. He is never short of hybrid political tools.
There is a significant difference between delaying invitation to the EU for Albania and North Macedonia and deferring an accession date for Belgrade. Vucic does not want to queue up for membership in the EU as the 30 or 31st member or wait indefinitely for approval of its membership application by Croatia and other neighbors. Moreover, these last moves with the S-400 and the Eurasian Economic Union are sure to delay any decision on accession dates further.
He wants to regain the initiative, negotiate on his terms and provide a broader ideological Yugo-context, leading the group of the disenchanted and engaging them in alternate integration formats – such as the West Balkans Schengen area. Russia is unable to provide a credible economic alternative to the EU but can still try and challenge NATO in the heart of Europe. China and Chinese investments are supposed to give an economical option to the EU.
Where Russia stations its S-400, geopolitics move into a higher spin. Vucic makes no secret that he wants to present an alternative to the security guarantees of NATO. By deploying the S-400, he seeks control over the air space of the Balkans, while parading strategic military ties with Moscow.
This saga with the S-400 and the entry into the Eurasian Economic Union come to confirm that Serbia under Vucic has no real intention to join either NATO or the EU. The defense and foreign policy agendas of both unions are intertwined, virtually inseparable, complementary at best.
Many in the West tend to downplay the consequence of the threat of potential deployment of S-400 or further military engagement of Russia in the West Balkans. Some of their reservations would be justified – most of the S-400 showcase is a virtual play, a perception buildup, meant to impress more than deliver. President Vucic is likely playing a tactical card using the S-400 and the threat of further eastward tilt as a bargaining chip in forthcoming talks on Kosovo and the EU. Yet this tactic might backfire if the West turns to hardball politics.
The role of Bulgaria, casting a blind eye to Russian military buildup, allowing an overflight of Russian planes with strategic cargo, invites a critical look. Moreover, in the light of identical patterns and routes for the transit of Russian weapons and gas via the Turkish Stream.
No one should underestimate the damage a Soviet-Yugoslav reborn axis, boosted by Chinese and Turkish involvement, could inflict to the interests of the EU and NATO in the region. Appeasement alone would not work.