A US envoy has expressed concern about Serbian interest in Russian air defense systems, warning Belgrade to be “careful and cautious” about buying them, in comments to North Macedonia television.
“We do of course have concerns not just about deployment of Russian military equipment on the territory of Serbia, but the possibility of Serbia acquiring significant Russian military systems,” US special envoy Matthew Palmer told the Elsat television channel, in an interview that aired late Friday.
Palmer was referring to the deployment last week of a Russian S-400 missile system and a Pantsir anti-aircraft gun and missile system to Serbia for the Slavic Shield-2019 defence exercises.
It was the first time the two weapons systems had taken part in military drills outside Russia, according to the Russian defense ministry.
They have been used in Syria and Turkey has purchased the S-400 system despite strong opposition from NATO partners.
The two weapons provide a multi-layered air defense network considered by many to be among the best in the world.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said his country would like to acquire the weapons, but that “the only way would be if Russia left them with us. Otherwise we do not have the means to procure them.”
Palmer, US special representative for the Western Balkans, told the Elsat: “We hope our Serbian partners will be careful and cautious about any such transactions.”
US military ties with Serbia were more significant than Russia-Serbian relations, he argued.
“We have a strong military partnership with Serbia, I think in fact, arguably Serbia’s best military partner is the United States.
“We think it is more significant than anything the Russians do with Belgrade,” the US envoy added.
Serbia nonetheless has historically close ties with Russia, which has provided backing over the delicate question of Kosovo, a former Serb province, and which shares a common Orthodox Christian faith.
Moscow was not pleased when Montenegro, which like Serbia is a former Yugoslav republic, joined NATO in 2017, and is keen to maintain influence in the region.