US threatens sanctions on Serbia

The United States has threatened Serbia with sanctions to deter the Balkan country’s rumored plans to purchase Russia’s state of the art S-400 missile system – one of the most advanced air defense systems available.

The controversy began last week after Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić suggested during an interview that he wished to buy the S-400 but lacked the 500 million euros for the purchase. At one point during the interview, Vucic even said “Serbia was ready to accept S-400s from Russia as a gift,” Russian news agency TASS reports.

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“You know, when you have such a weapon, no one would attack you. Neither the US nor any other pilots fly where S-400s are operational: Israeli pilots do not fly either over Turkey or Syria, except for the Golan Heights. We have aviation, which the strongest than ever before. We will be strengthening the air defense with Pantsyr systems and other things, which are not on the sanctions list,” Vučić said in the interview.

Vučić then went on to explain that he had gone to the Slavic Shield-2019, a Russian-Serbian military exercise,  to personally inspect the advanced air defense system and to witness its capabilities himself.

Before the interview, at least one notable Serbian newspaper reported that Belgrade was contemplating the purchase of the state of the art anti-air system on long-term credit, with some even saying that Serbian officers had already begun limited training on the systems.

The United States swiftly responded to Vučić’s statement and the rumors, with US Special Representative for the Western Balkans Mathew Palmer warning in an interview with Macedonian television that a purchase of the missile system would result in Washington imposing sanctions against Belgrade.

U.S. concerns initially arose last month after Russia’s S-400 missile system, along with Pantsir launchers, were dispatched to Serbia for the Slavic Shield military drill. The action underscored Moscow’s desire to keep the Slavic nation and historically by its side as Belgrade weighs the advantages of forging closer ties with the West and the Europea Union.

Serbia is currently the only country in the Western Balkans that hasn’t expressed an explicit desire to join NATO despite having joined its Partnership for Peace program in 2015.

Last week, Palmer said that a Russo-Serbian arms deal could prompt US sanctions against Belgrade, sanctions that could include visa bands to the denial of export licenses.

Vučić, however, dismissed the threats, telling Serbs “not to fear broad sanctions would be imposed on Serbia similar to those of the 1990s during the Balkan wars,” Reuters reports.

Turkey and India recently acquired the state-of-the-art Russian missile defense system, much to the displeasure of the US. Since then, other countries like Iran, Iraq, Egypt, and Qatar have all expressed interest in buying the system.