After an undiplomatic statement by the Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson about the Serbian President, Moscow apologised to Belgrade. Was this an isolated incident or a sign of a deeper rift between Russia and Serbia?
Earlier this month, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić and the Prime Minister of Kosovo Avdullah Hoti met in the White House. Alongside US President Donald Trump, the two signed an agreement on economic normalisation between their governments, in the hope that in the future this will lead to a final political settlement.
Maria Zakharova, the spokesperson for the Russian Foreign Ministry, commented on the meeting with characteristically blunt style. Zakharova posted photos of Vučić sitting facing Trump and compared this with the infamous Sharon Stone ‘crossed legs’ scene from the film ‘Basic Instinct’. This episode should not be dismissed as merely Zakharova’s diplomatic gaffe, for it is a sign that the Serbo–Russian partnership is on a downward spiral which began before the meeting in Washington.
It is common to describe relations between Belgrade and Moscow as a traditional alliance between two Slavic and Orthodox nations, but this description is historically and geopolitically inaccurate. Serbo–Russian relations have always depended on the constellation of strategic interests and on who is in power in Belgrade and Moscow. The new partnership between the two countries commenced in 2008, after Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence and the global financial crisis. Burdened with the unresolved Kosovo dispute and stranded on the periphery of the West, Serbia moved closer to Russia to use Moscow’s UN Security Council veto to block international recognition of Kosovo and to gain leverage over the West. Serbian domestic politics played a part in warmer relations with Moscow, in particular domestic sensitivity to the Kosovo issue and the popularity of Russia and its President Vladimir Putin.
For the past three years, the partnership has been gradually declining. Beyond the fact that in both economic and military terms Serbian cooperation was more significant with the West than with Russia, Russian influence in the Balkans suffered several blows, as Montenegro joined NATO in 2017 and North Macedonia followed suit earlier this year. The geographical reality of encirclement became obvious to Belgrade in July 2019 when Romania blocked Russian arms shipment to Serbia. Russia also perceives Vučić as a pragmatic opportunist, closer to the West than to Russia, unlike Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dačić. The warm facade is also not preventing Russia and Serbia from conducting intelligence operations against each other. In November 2019, a video appeared of a Russian intelligence officer bribing a former Serbian military officer.
On the Kosovo issue, the relations between the two countries are becoming complicated. For Belgrade, relying on Moscow in the UN Security Council is needed to achieve a more satisfactory resolution of the Kosovo dispute. However, for Moscow, the Kosovo dispute is the primary source of its influence in the Balkans. Vučić understands that the unresolved Kosovo issue leaves Serbia in a state of permanent dependency on Russia while giving Putin the ability to destroy him politically. Given the popularity of Putin in Serbia, the Russian veto on any Kosovo settlement negotiated by Vučić would be interpreted in the Serbian public as Putin saving Serbia from Vučić’s betrayal. Putin will use that veto unless given something in return by the West.
Consequently, the Serbian government is wary of Moscow. During the coronavirus pandemic, Serbia did not greet Russian aid with the same enthusiasm as Chinese aid showing that Serbia is replacing Russia with China as its preferred eastern partner. During the violent July 2020 protests in Serbia triggered by the government’s handling of the pandemic and its growing illiberalism, the pro-government media and tabloids started accusing pro-Russian, anti-EU elements of Serbian society of fomenting the unrest to prevent the resolution of the Kosovo dispute. No proof of Russian involvement was produced, but now Russia is the target of the same propaganda machine that used to glorify it. The Serbian government is now willing to scapegoat Russia for domestic unrest and to seek approval from the West for inflating the Russian threat. The question mark remains whether pro-Russian Dačić and his Socialist Party of Serbia will be in the new Serbian government as, after the controversial 2020 elections, Vučić and his Serbian Progressive Party have a two-thirds majority in parliament.
From the Russian perspective, relations were going sour before the White House meeting. But the Kremlin has more immediate reasons to be angry over the White House meeting. One of the stipulations of the agreement signed in Washington is the diversification of energy supplies, a direct swipe at Russia on whose energy supplies Serbia is dependent. However, the main reason for Russian ire is that Belgrade is now following the US on Kosovo, meaning that Belgrade is slowly turning its back on Moscow and pivoting towards Washington.
Vučić said of Zakharova’s comments that ‘the primitivism and vulgarity she showed speaks of her, and by God, of those who placed her there’. This indicates a deeper resentment and can only be interpreted as a dig in the direction of Vladimir Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
The troubles did not end there. After the White House meeting, Serbia cancelled its participation in the traditional trilateral military exercise with Russia and Belarus, Slavic Brotherhood 2020. Serbia did so by suspending all international military exercises for the next six months. Serbian Defence Minister Aleksandar Vulin stated that ‘Serbia is under terrible and undeserved pressure from the European Union’. However, NATO noted that it had not planned any military exercises with Serbia during that period.
The fact that Russia and the EU are clashing over Belarus played a role in Serbia’s decision to cancel military exercises, but the Serbian military partnership with Russia has already faced problems. In August 2020, Serbia agreed to purchase the Chinese anti-aircraft FK-3 missile system instead of the Russian S-300 system, angering the Russian media. Vulin’s statement hides from the domestic and international public the fact that the partnership with Russia is in trouble, as is the Serbian balancing act between Russia and the West.
The partnership is not entirely over yet. Despite the document from the White House, Serbia still cannot rid itself of its energy dependency on Russia. And there is still the issue of Kosovo, which propels Vučić to keep Putin close. A couple of days after the White House meeting, Vučić had a phone call with Putin where the two presidents reaffirmed their commitments to mutual partnership and where Putin apologised for Zakharova’s comments.
However, Putin also said that ‘Russia had not changed its position in searching for a balanced and compromise solution acceptable to Belgrade which should be verified by the UN Security Council’. Putin was sending a message to Vučić that he still has influence over him on Kosovo, as well as a warning to the West that Russia will not give up a key partner for free.
Vuk Vuksanovic is a PhD researcher in International Relations at LSE and an associate of LSE IDEAS, LSE’s foreign policy think tank.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.