How the EU and the US prevented Serbia from acquiring the S-400
Serbia’s military modernization is of interest given its history of conflict with NATO and its aim to join the European Union [EU]. The EU’s influence on Serbia’s economy further complicates this situation.
- Serbia received Chinese reconnaissance and attack drones CH-92A
- Serbia abandons MiG-29s, moves to the French Dassault Rafale
- China sold FK-3 medium / long-range missile system to Serbia
Serbia, like Belarus, has maintained security ties with Russia, a rare move among former Warsaw Pact and ex-Yugoslav countries. This alliance, strengthened by shared exercises and public support for Russia, is at odds with Western pressures.
Serbia is enhancing its ground forces with Russian equipment, but its air defenses and combat aviation’s future are sensitive topics. Both Serbia and the West remember the intense NATO bombardment and the subsequent losses, including two stealth fighters.
Serbia has been modernizing its air defenses since the late 2010s, with the acquisition of MiG-29 fighters from Russia and Belarus, and Russian Pantsir-S combat vehicles. The upgraded MiG-29SEs increased Serbia’s fleet to 14 aircraft.
Serbia’s small combat aviation shifted its focus to effective ground-based air defense systems. Reports suggest that Serbia may acquire Russia’s top-tier S-400 system.
Rumors about Serbia’s acquisition of the S-400 system spiked when it was used in exercises in Serbia in 2019. The S-400 is a key part of Russian and Belarusian air defenses, with over 60 regiments in the Russian Air Force. Its production capacity enables it to equip several battalions annually.
In 2019, S-400 missile systems were placed at the Batajnica base near Belgrade, Serbia. This began the Slavic Shield live-fire exercises, as reported by the Serbian Defence Ministry. The ministry stated that air defense drills like these will be regular, aiming to improve Russian and Serbian aerial warfare cooperation.
This move followed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Belgrade earlier that year. The exercises demonstrated military prowess, with 14 Serbian aircraft acting as enemies and quickly destroyed by the S-400 system, which fired 26 missiles.
Designed to engage with advanced aircraft, the S-400 has been praised as superior against fourth-generation fighters like the MiG-29s. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic showed interest in acquiring these systems if funds were available.
The S-400 missile system was a good choice for Serbia’s defense and Russia’s interests due to its affordability, low maintenance, and powerful capabilities. Its compact design and high mobility made it a formidable adversary compared to other air defense systems. The S-400’s adaptability surpassed even Serbia’s MiG-29s.
Equipped with multiple radars, the S-400 delivers exceptional situational awareness, even against stealth targets. The system was developed to counter stealth aircraft and has a range of missiles, including the 40N6 with a 400km range, double that of similar Western air defense assets.
However, the $500 million cost of a single S-400 regiment presented a financial challenge for Serbia, given its $1.1 billion defense budget. Serbian authorities considered a long-term credit agreement with Russia to afford the system.
Despite potential financial solutions, political pressure from the European Union and threats of economic sanctions from the United States discouraged Serbia from the deal. U.S. Representative Matthew Palmer warned Serbia of sanctions for intending to acquire S-400s, backed by the U.S.’s CAATSA, which threatens sanctions on clients for Russian military hardware since 2017. Serbia’s President Vucic stated that his government had no plans to purchase the systems.
CAATSA’s aim was to prevent Serbia from enhancing its air defense system with Russian equipment. This was to limit Serbia’s compatibility with Russian forces and to minimize the strategic value of S-400s in Southeastern Europe for the Russian Air Force. The measure also sought to maintain Western military options against Serbia.
Serbian President Vucic stated that although Serbia would not be seeking S-400s, he acknowledged its benefits. He added that Serbia would continue to strengthen its air defenses with other systems. Despite Western pressure, Serbia bought the HQ-22 system from China in 2020, delivered in 2022 during the Russian-Ukrainian War.
The HQ-22, while not equivalent to the S-400, offers advanced electronics and sensors. It has enhanced Serbia’s aerial warfare capabilities and could be paired with the S-400 if politics allow. Other countries have also been deterred from buying Russian defense systems due to potential Western backlash. South Korea, Thailand, and Indonesia are a few examples of such cases.
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