The ongoing war in Ukraine is putting a strain on the relationship between Russia and one of its closest allies in Europe, Serbia. Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, who previously had regular contact with Russian President Vladimir Putin has now distanced himself from Moscow's actions in Ukraine.
In a recent interview with the press, Vučić dismissed Putin's territorial claims in Ukraine while also predicting that the conflict is far from over, stating that the “worst is yet to come” as both sides dig in. He also revealed he hadn't spoken with Putin for many months.
Vučić emphasised that Serbia cannot and will not support Russia's invasion of Ukraine, stating, “For us, Crimea is Ukraine, Donbas is Ukraine, and it'll remain so.” This statement is a significant shift in Serbia's position since Putin's invasion of Ukraine almost 11 months ago.
Historically, Serbia has sought to balance its geopolitical and economic interests between East and West, but these comments underline a gradual shift towards the West.
Serbia's reluctance to join the United States and the European Union in imposing sanctions against Russia has put the country under increased pressure to cut ties with Putin and his energy supplies, even as the war has hit the economy and sent inflation soaring.
Vučić, who was re-elected by a landslide last year, says EU membership is his ultimate goal, but he is resisting the sanctions effort because of Russia backing his refusal to recognise the independence of Kosovo, and Serbia's own experience with economic isolation. Russia also sells natural gas to Serbia at below the market rate.
In terms of trade, Russia is behind China and both are dwarfed by the EU which is by far Serbia's biggest trading partner. However, Russia still holds a significant position in Serbia's trade accounting for about 6 percent of Serbia's foreign trade, and making it the third biggest trading partner.
Serbia has been moving out of Russia's orbit for years, and to steady its finances, it secured EUR 2.4 billion funding from the International Monetary Fund and a EUR 1 billion loan from United Arab Emirates, which has been deepening its ties with the Balkan country.
Vučić clarified that it would be wrong to assume that his government fully endorses the leadership in Moscow, stating “We are not always jubilant about some of their stances. We have a traditionally good relationship, but it doesn’t mean that we support every single decision or most of the decisions that are coming from the Kremlin.”
The alliance between Russia and Serbia goes back centuries, but it cooled during Soviet times under Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito. It regained momentum during the Balkan wars and was cemented by NATO's 1999 intervention that ended the war in Kosovo.
Despite the shift in the relationship, Serbia still stands out in Europe, along with Hungary, for its position on Russia. Its national airline still maintains routes to the country and Belgrade is a destination of choice for Russians, albeit more recently exiles fleeing Putin's regime. A poll taken last summer showed that Putin was the most favored world leader among Serbs.
However, Vučić has taken a firm stance against the recruitment of Serbian nationals by the Russian mercenary group Wagner to fight in Ukraine. He stated in the interview, “Wagner will not do that in Serbia,” citing laws that prevent it.
This statement has won praise from the US Ambassador to Belgrade, Christopher Hill, who said, “I was glad to hear from President Vučić and his administration that they can see the threat to peace and stability posed by Wagner potentially operating in Serbia.”
Serbian Defence Minister Miloš Vučević also warned Serbs against joining Russian ranks in the war against Ukraine.