Serbia eyes French fighter jets to boost its military

In February, the Serbian president proudly presented his latest acquisitions, Russia's Repellent anti-drone system as well as Chinese drones.
Serbia's President Aleksandar Vucic
Serbia's President Aleksandar Vucic Photo | AFP

BELGRADE: Serbia's president is confident his country will soon buy French fighter jets, the latest foray in a surge of arms deals with Europe, China and Russia made possibly by a tripling of Belgrade's military budget in the past decade.

"All European countries are arming themselves, and we must do the same," President Aleksandar Vucic said in March.

"Even much more than the others, to stay intact and be able to dissuade possible aggressors," he said.

Serbia has continued to purchase weapons from China and Russia after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

In February, the Serbian president proudly presented his latest acquisitions, Russia's Repellent anti-drone system as well as Chinese drones.

He said Serbia would start producing its own explosive drones by the end of the year.

"Serbia acquires weapons and military equipment both from the East and the West," the country's defence ministry told AFP in March, responding to a question about its purchases.

Belgrade is "opting for those whose characteristics will improve the capabilities of the Serbian armed forces", it said.

'Ridiculous'

Serbia's annual military budget has tripled in the past decade to reach 1.4 billion euros ($1.5 billion).

The amount exceeds the combined budgets of the other five Western Balkan nations -- Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia and Montenegro.

From 2014 until this year, Serbia spent 2.7 billion euros ($2.9 billion) on arms purchases. They included the 2019 acquisition of China's FK-3 air-defence system as well as Russian Mi-17 and Mi-35 helicopters and Pantsir anti-aircraft systems.

In February, Vucic hinted that Serbia was ready to invest three billion euros for a possible purchase of French Rafale planes.

During a visit to Paris earlier this week he went even further.

"I believe we have reached concrete agreements concerning the purchase of Rafales," he said.

"I expect the contract to be signed within the next two months, in the presence of the French president, which is extremely important for our country."

Dassault Aviation, which makes the planes, refused to comment Monday on a possible sale of its jets to Serbia.

The sale would raise questions, given Vucic's closeness to Russia.

"It would be ridiculous for Paris, on the one hand, to mention sending troops to Ukraine, and on the other, to sell an extremely sophisticated weapon to one of Russia's closest allies", political scientist Jasmin Mujanovic said.

Since Russia's aggression on Ukraine in February 2022, Belgrade has not joined any sanctions against Russia.

Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic visited Moscow in late March, an opportunity, according to Belgrade, to improve the "traditionally friendly ties between Serbia and Russia".

The sale of Rafales to a Russian ally "would be worrying, as it would allow information to leak to China and Russia", Mujanovic told AFP.

The fighter jet, which has been operational since 2004 and is scheduled to fly until 2060s, is the French defence industry's export spearhead.

Seven countries -- Egypt, Qatar, India, Greece, Indonesia, the United Arab Emirates and Croatia -- either fly Rafales or have signed deals to acquire them.

Kosovo intimidation?

According to the Serbian defence white paper published last year, the "biggest security challenge" for the country is Kosovo, its former province that proclaimed independence in 2008, a decade after a war that claimed 13,000 lives.

If the Rafale deal goes ahead "you could see French fighter jets used to intimidate Kosovo," Mujanovic said.

Elsewhere in Serbia's neighbourhood, Albania inaugurated a NATO-backed airbase in March, while Croatia bought 12 used Rafale planes and is considering reintroducing compulsory military service. Both Albania and Croatia are NATO members.

Kosovo meanwhile has announced a $75 million deal for US Javelin anti-tank missiles.

Adnan Cerimagic, a researcher with the European Stability Initiative (ESI) think-tank, pointed to the "European, even global, trend towards increasing military capacities" and the "dominant narrative in Serbia, which speaks of the duty to prepare for conflict".

"Difficult days lie ahead for Serbia," Vucic wrote in a viral Instagram post on March 26, citing "news that directly threatens our vital national interests", without elaborating.

"It will be difficult. We will fight. Serbia will win," the president wrote.

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