European Western Balkans

Serb fighters in Ukraine – Orthodox solidarity or financial interests?

Rebels in Eastern Ukraine; Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In 2014, when the war in Ukraine flared up, media reported that, according to the national Security Information Agency, in the conflict participate no more than 30 people from Serbia. More specifically, around twenty of them fought on the side of pro-Russian rebels.

In 2015, allegedly there was 70 of them who, despite popular belief that they were drawn by an nationalist sense of solidarity with the region’s Russian Orthodox Christians and hostility towards NATO, were described by authorities primarily as mercenaries.

Serbian officials denied any direct involvement in the fighting, claiming that local citizens went to Ukraine voluntarily.

However, not only Serbs from Serbia joined the pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine. It is reported that unlike Muslim fighters from Bosnia and Herzegovina who often go to Syria to join the Islamic State and who have no combat experience, Bosnian Serbs also joined the pro-Russian forces mainly acquired with the combat experience from the Yugoslav conflict.

Furthermore, the idea itself of forming special paramilitary units that will defend the interests of Serbs outside the country, in the regions of former Yugoslavia, came from then president Slobodan Milosevic.

In the meantime, Belgrade passed a law that penalizes participation in a foreign war. The draft law is aimed at Serbian fighters in Ukraine as well as those fighting alongside jihadists in the Mideast. Yet, so far the authorities in Belgrade did not prosecute anyone for such engagement in Ukraine.

In parallel, most European governments have invested much time and resources into solving the problems of indoctrination of citizens returning from fighting in Syria and Iraq, but virtually no country has a clear policy about what to do with fighters from Ukrainian war.

Similarly, in Serbia, most of them who returned from the fighting, went back to their families without facing any consequences, on the one hand, and on the other they have not been part of any rehabilitation programme, thus completely neglected by the state. Hence, it is realistic to expect their war re-engagement in the coming years.


This article has been produced with the support of the Balkan Trust for Democracy. The content of this article and the opinions expressed herein are the sole responsibility of the portal European Western Balkans and in no way reflect the views and opinions of the Balkan Trust for Democracy nor the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

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