BELGRADE, Serbia — Serbia and Russia launched joint military exercises near Serbia’s capital Thursday as U.S.-led forces held massive drills in neighboring Balkan states in what appeared to be Moscow’s resolve to maintain influence in the European region torn by wars during the 1990s.
The Serbian and Russian defense ministries said the joint training of some 200 special troops will include “the destruction of an illegal military formation,” live ammunition shooting and “anti-terrorist” action. The drills will last through May 25, the ministries said.
The exercises at a training ground near Belgrade comes as large-scale U.S. Army-led drills dubbed Defender Europe 2021 are held across Europe, including in most of the nations that neighbor Serbia.
The U.S. Army has said that the joint exercises which include approximately 28,000 multinational troops are “designed to build readiness and interoperability between U.S., NATO and partner militaries.’'
The exercises, which include air and missile defense assets, “demonstrates our ability to serve as a strategic security partner in the western Balkans and Black Sea regions while sustaining our abilities in northern Europe, the Caucasus, Ukraine and Africa,” the U.S. military has said.
Serbia, which is a member of NATO’s Partnership for Peace outreach program and is formally seeking European Union membership, has been forging close military, economic and political ties with both Russia and China.
Serbia remains the only Russian ally in the region that was torn by bloody civil wars in the 1990s. Most of Serbia’s neighbors belong to NATO and Moscow has openly opposed their membership in the Western military alliance, claiming the eastern European region is its traditional sphere of influence.
Serbian Interior Minister Aleksandar Vulin said Thursday that Russia is “a great security partner.”
“We are jointly thinking of how to preserve our countries because Serbia and Russia can be broken only from within, not from the outside,” Vulin said.