23 October 2020

A Russian Defence Ministry office in Belgrade?

Liviu Ioniţă

For the last couple of days, the mass-media in Serbia and abroad are speculating over emotional and media-impact information about the opening of a Russian Defence Ministry office in Belgrade.

Image source: Profimedia

Sensational news in the Balkans

On October 16th, the government news website and the Russian mass-media has started to circulate the idea that prime-minister Mikhail Mishustin has approved (on October 15th) an agreement framework elaborated by the Russian defence ministry and approved by a series of other institutions (among them the Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry) to create a Russian Defence Ministry office at the Republic of Serbia’s Ministry of Defence.

The objective of this defence ministry office in Serbia is the cooperation with the Serbian side to solve the problems related to the military and technical-military collaboration, offering a leadership of Russian military experts’ activity from Serbia in strengthening the Serbian armed force, the training for the use and reparation of the weapons systems and military technique delivered by Russia to Serbia.

The framework agreement foresees, among others, the possibility for the Serbian side to let the office’s chief to visit, when needed and coordinated by the Serbian side, the Serbian military units which are equipped with Russian military technique and weapon systems. Also, the office’s chief can personally inform the Serbian defence ministry on the activity of the personnel enlisted in the office, given that the military and technical-military collaboration between the Russian and Serbian armed forces are also coordinated to that end with the Serbian side.

On October 20 and 21th, the information was taken by almost all online and written media in Serbia and the former Yugoslav space, without offering, however, details about the project itself.

The Bulgarian “Danas” newspaper (which usually criticizes the Belgrade’s power) is mentioning, however, that the agreement foresees diplomatic immunity and status for the office and its personnel, according to the Wien Convention provisions (from April 18th 1961).

Sources from the Serbian Defence Ministry have confirmed to some Serbian media websites the information on the possibility to open, in Belgrade, a Russian defence ministry office. The agreement’s text is not done yet, but the procedure was already initiated. The technical-military collaboration between Serbia and Russia is being developed based on an intergovernmental agreement, signed with the approval of the two supreme commanders, presidents Aleksandar Vucic and Vladimir Putin.

 Opinions on the Serbian side

Starting from the idea of a strategic partnership between Serbia and Russia, the Serbian analyst Dragomir Anđelković thinks that founding a Russian defence ministry office is normal, given that there is already a NATO office in Belgrade (the NATO Military Liaison Office Belgrade/MLO Be). According to him, founding this Russian office would be normal following Serbia’s “military neutrality” option. He also underlines that the initiative of the Russian side is not unilateral, but supported by the Serbian side. Furthermore, there are chances for Serbia to be even more appreciated by the West this way, although new Western pressure might also emerge.

According to general (r) Mitar Kovac, former chief of the Strategic Planning Directorate in the Serbian Defence Ministry, currently director of the Eurasian Security Forum in Belgrade and professor at the Military Academy in Belgrade, the office of the Russian defence ministry cannot be similar to MLO Be, because the Russian office focuses more on the technical-military collaboration and does not have a political nature. He says that “parity” on the MLO Be existence would be the opening, in Belgrade, of an office of the CSTO of Independent States Community. Also, the personnel of this office should get the same diplomatic status and privileges as the MLO Be personnel.

Thus, general (r) M. Kovac also says that:

- the technical-military collaboration between the Serbians and the Russians has intensified lately, through the Russian aircrafts, tanks and armored vehicles donation and the acquisition of air defence systems and helicopters;

-for the proper use of these systems in the Serbian Army, they need a better technical-military collaboration, and this can only be provided by the opening of a Russian defence ministry office. Indeed, the collaboration will be better after the process ends.

One more step for the Russian-Serbian cooperation

Just like in the case of other political or military activities with the Russian side, the Belgrade authorities (especially the Defence Ministry) have confirmed the information related to the foundation of a Russian defence ministry office after information about it spread in the Russian and Western mass-media. Actually, the reaction of the ministry was provoked by the requests of the Serbian mass-media.

The Russian prime-minister signed the framework agreement elaborated by the Russian defence ministry in the middle of October, but it became“sensational” news in the Balkan space only 3 or 4 days after that. Furthermore, on October 20th, people from Pristine called the agreement an event that raises concerns and represents a challenge for the Euro-Atlantic orientation of the region (Enver Hoxhaj, vice-president of the Democratic Party in Kosovo).

The name to be used for the new Russian diplomatic-military structures from Belgrade will probably be “office” (“predstabitelstvo”), but it will be similar in terms of structure and enrollment with the cooperation offices in the defence field in US embassies. It is noteworthy that all the costs for its functioning will be on the Russian side. In Belgrade, there is also a commercial office of the Russian Federation Ruse (Торговоe представительствo Российской Федерации в Республике Сербии).

This office might include representatives of the Russian Defence Ministry, the Federal Service for Technical-Military Collaboration, the Rosoboronexport company and some people from companies in the Military-Industrial Complex of the Russian Federation (involved in building artillery and missile systems “Pantsir”, Mi-17 and Mi-35 helicopters, the modernization of MiG-29 aircrafts, T-72 tanks and research armored vehicles BRDM-2 etc.).

Based on the provisions of the framework project revealed for the media and considering the last Russian weapon systems and military technique acquisitions, it comes out that the personnel of the Russian ministry defence office might have access in the aviation and air defence units: Jakovo/Belgrade 3rd Air Defense Division (equipped with "Panţir-S1E" systems), 204th Batajnica/Belgrade Aviation Brigade (equipped with MiG-29 aircraft and Mi-17 transport helicopters), Moma Aviation Plant Stanojlović ”from Batajnica (intended to become a regional repair center for various levels of Russian Mi-8/Mi-17 helicopters) and the 98th Lađevci/Kraljevo Aviation Brigade (equipped with Mi-35M helicopters). Collaboration for the modernization of older "Kub" or "Neva" missile defence systems is not ruled out, which would involve the access of Russian experts to other divisions of the 250th Airborne Missile Brigade.

Thus, the access to units of the Land Forces of the Serbian Army would be justified only in the case of the Armored Investigation Battalion (established in 2019 and directly subordinated to Land Forces Command in Niš, endowed (currently) with the 10 BRDM-2MS vehicles (received in the summer of 2019, from the donation of 30 such vehicles promised in December 2016)).

An office of the Defense Attaché (Russian Defence Attaché) operates within the Russia’s Embassy in Belgrade, staffed by a relatively large number of personnel, including four persons with diplomatic status and immunity. Therefore, it is worth emphasizing that this is the first time that this office is staffed with a general and three officers with the rank of colonel. With the establishment of the new representative, the old office of the defense attaché will continue to function, as the tasks of the two differ significantly.

It comes as a surprise also that the mass-media does not mention anything about the Serbian-Russian Humanitarian Centre from Nis, which was frequently criticized by the West that calls it an “intelligence” centre or even an “advance military base” of Russia in Serbia. We will see what will the solution be for the status and possible diplomatic privileges of the future defence ministry office in the technical-military field, because for 8 years Belgrade and Moscow could not get to an  agreement on the status and privileges for the Nis humanitarian centre (due to the Western pressures on Belgrade).

On the other hand, the humanitarian centre works, its partner in Serbia being the Home Affairs Ministry. Furthermore, this spring (April), some of the Russian experts sent to Serbia (doctors and CBRN experts) to support the fight against the COVI-19 epidemic have collaborated with the personnel of the humanitarian centre in Nis.

At the end of June, a Russian embassy delegation from Belgrade visited Nis and the humanitarian centre. The chief of the Russian Defence Attaché and his assistant were also part of the Russian diplomatic delegation.

It is less likely for the opening of the Russian defence ministry office to be the result of White House’s agreements (04.09.2020) to normalize the economic relations between Belgrade and Pristine, but it is likely for these agreements to have pushed Moscow to go on with the process. If Moscow cannot support the important investments or credits Washington is planning on spending to promote the normalization of the economic relations between Serbia and Kosovo, the Russian Federation continues to work on two fields where its efforts proved to be productive: energy and the military and technical-military collaboration. The defence ministry office is part of this policy, hoping that Serbia will continue the modernization process of the MiG-29 aircrafts (most likely, 14 aircrafts, with four of them to come from Belarus) and will deliver Serbia the 20 BRDM-2MS vehicles and 30 T-72 tanks, from the December 2016 donation.

There is also the possibility for all this media exposure about the creation of a Russian defence ministry office to support the high-level collaboration between Belgrade and Moscow, given that no one is sure yet how the October visit of Russian president, Vladimir Putin, to Serbia will take place. Maybe this is also another way to promote the visit in Belgrade of Russian Foreign Affairs Minister, Sergey Lavrov, at the end of October.

Translated by Andreea Soare