Russia arms Serbia in race with NATO

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Russia will supply Serbia with fighter jets, tanks and combat vehicles, a move that potentially strengthens Moscow’s influence in the Balkans.

The six MiG-29 fighter jets, 30 T-72 tanks and 30 combat vehicles come from Russia’s weapons reserves. The jets will need immediate overhaul after delivery in March, which will cost between 180-230 million euros.

Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, who secured the deal during his visit to Russia on Wednesday, said the Russian “donation” will “dramatically” boost his country’s defense capability. Most of Serbia’s neighbors are NATO members.

Vucic said Serbia will remain militarily neutral despite the new weaponry from Russia.

“The sky over Serbia will be absolutely safe,” Vucic said. “That means we will have an advantage over those who would perhaps think of threatening Serbia in the future. We are not threatening anyone.”

Although formally seeking European Union membership, Serbia has been sliding toward traditional Slavic ally Russia.

The arms deal comes amid growing tensions between Serbia and neighboring Croatia, a NATO and EU member, and intensified Russian efforts to prevent the Balkans aligning further with the West.

Many in Serbia are hostile toward NATO because of its bombing of the country in 1999 over a bloody government crackdown against Kosovo Albanian separatists. Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, something both Serbia and Russia reject.

Serbia’s labor minister Aleksandar Vulin said the arms deal with Russia is “historic.”

“Since the NATO aggression, we were never safer,” Vulin said. “Now we will be able to defend our territories.”

Russian president calls for strengthening military nuclear potential

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has called for reinforcing the country’s military nuclear potential in response to NATO’s planned build-up near Russian borders.

“We need to strengthen the military potential of strategic nuclear forces, especially with missile complexes that can reliably penetrate any existing and prospective missile defense systems,” Putin said at a Defense Ministry meeting in the capital, Moscow, on Thursday.

The Russian president warned that the planned military build-up by the US-led Western military alliance near Russia’s borders could change the balance of power in the region.

“We must carefully monitor any changes in the balance of power and in the political-military situation in the world, especially along Russian borders, and quickly adapt plans for neutralizing threats to our country,” the Russian leader said.

Senior Russian officials have stressed that NATO’s planned enhancement of its military presence in the Baltics and Poland, near Russia, will not go unanswered. They say NATO is using an alleged Russian threat to expand eastward.

The Russian ambassador to NATO, Alexander Grushko, warned in late October that the planned military build-up near Russia’s borders has no anti-terrorism value and is not bolstering Europe’s security, but it rather creates additional “obvious risks.”

NATO and the United States are also engaged in an active exploration of the Black Sea waters with multi-functional combat platforms.

NATO suspended ties with Moscow in April 2014, after Crimea Peninsula voted in a referendum to join Russian territory a month earlier.

Elsewhere in his remarks, Putin said Russia’s military had successfully shown its capabilities against terrorist groups in Syria.

“The Syrian army received considerable support, thanks to which it carried out several successful operations against militants,” he said.

Russia has been conducting airstrikes against Daesh and other terrorist groups in Syria at the request of the Damascus government since late September 2015.

Russia’s its special operations contingents have been also operating on the ground in the Arab country.