Serbia’s leader praises Putin for boosting its military

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Serbia’s leader on Monday praised Russian President Vladimir Putin for boosting the Balkan nation’s military with battle tanks and armored vehicles, amid Western fears that the arms buildup could threaten fragile peace in the region.

President Aleksandar Vucic inspected the delivery of 10 recently arrived Russian armored patrol vehicles at a Serbian army military base, part of the promised supply of 30 secondhand T-72 tanks and 30 BRDM-2 reconnaissance vehicles.

The vehicles have been delivered despite neighboring Romania’s refusal to let them transit via the Danube River because of international sanctions in place against Moscow over its actions in Ukraine. Romania is a NATO member while Serbia claims military neutrality despite close ties with Moscow.

Media reports say Russia flew the 10 armored vehicles to Serbia last week on its transport planes using Hungarian airspace.

“The most important thing for us is that we managed to transport the vehicles to Serbia,” Vucic said. “How and which way they came, that is our business.”

Russia has been helping its ally Serbia beef up its military, raising concerns in the war-scarred Balkan region. During the bloody breakup of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, Serbia was at war with neighbors Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo.

Serbia, the only remaining Russian ally in the region despite its proclaimed goal of joining the European Union, has already received six MiG-29 fighter jets from Russia and expects the delivery of additional attack and transport helicopters by the end of this year.

Vucic thanked Putin for “the strengthening of the combat capability of our armed forces.”

Russian Ambassador Alexander Botsan-Kharchenko, who attended the ceremony on Monday, stated that Moscow was ready to continue its support for Belgrade, claiming that the strengthening of Serbia’s military is the “strengthening of the security of the region.”

“Russia is ready and will always be ready for military and technical cooperation with Serbia,” he said, adding: “We will continue working in this direction.”

There are fears in the West that Russia could push Serbia toward another war, especially against its former province of Kosovo that proclaimed independence in 2008. Serbia and Russia don’t recognize Kosovo’s statehood.