European Western Balkans

Through military exercise with NATO members, Serbia leans towards cooperation with the West

Military exercise"Platinum Wolf 19" at South Base; Photo: Army of Serbia

At the beginning of April, the Ministry of Defense of the Republic of Serbia confirmed the information that the Serbian Armed Forces will again participate in the multinational military exercise “Platinum Wolf”, which will be held this year from June 16 to 30 at the base “Jug” near Bujanovac. In addition to the Serbian armed forces, partner countries with which members of the Serbian Armed Forces operate in international multinational operations will also take part in the exercises, including the United States and some NATO member countries.

The decision to take part in the “Platinum Wolf” exercises again caused a lot of public attention, since it was made after the period of suspension of holding military exercises with foreign partners, introduced after the beginning of the Russian aggression against Ukraine, and resulted in negative reactions from right-wing political parties and calls for the cancellation of exercises in which NATO members also participate.

Although it was announced that this is a formal exception to the still active moratorium on participation in all international military exercises, in the current geopolitical moment, the return of Serbia to the organization of the “Platinum Wolf 2023” exercise, along with a series of steps in improving military cooperation with the United States in the past months, suggests the intentions of the Serbian leadership to further strengthen ties with the USA.

Is this a hint of permanent changes in Serbian foreign policy?

When asked how will the decision to participate again in exercises with the US and NATO members affect the position of Serbia in the current geopolitical circumstances, Vuk Vuksanović, senior researcher at the Belgrade Center for Security Policy, pointed out that it seems that the balancing policy between the West and Russia is currently in the stage in which Belgrade began to lean more towards the West, i.e., especially to the United States of America.

“It seems that when it comes to security and defence policy, USA dominates as Serbia’s partner,” adds Vuksanović.

According to him, several other important things have been noticed in the past months in improving cooperation with the USA and NATO that go beyond the framework of a joint military exercise, namely the participation of Serbian soldiers alongside American soldiers in the Sinai mission (for the first time outside the framework of the United Nations), and according to the Turkish press, the joint development of an early warning system against a nuclear attack on NATO border states.

As for the specific future of Serbia’s existing moratorium on military exercises with foreign partners, it is unclear for now whether a final decision to lift the moratorium will soon follow after the exception has been made. Vuksanović believes that it is a de facto cancellation of the moratorium, and that the decision was made solely because of future military exercises and cooperation with NATO member states.

“I do not see the possibility that this will lead to new exercises with countries such as Russia and Belarus because in these circumstances it would be a risk that the Serbian leadership cannot afford,” concludes Vuk Vuksanović.

Moratorium on participation in military exercises and exceptions

Bilateral and multilateral military exercises are an important aspect of the overall activities carried out by the Serbian Armed Forces. Analyses carried out by the Balkan Security Network and the Belgrade Center for Security Policy show that over the past decade, despite the potentially wrong perception of public opinion, the frequency of (both bilateral and multilateral) military exercises with Western partners and NATO members, and through the Partnership for Peace program, is significantly higher (by several times) than when it comes to joint exercises with Russia (and Belarus).

However, after the beginning of the Russian aggression against Ukraine and shortly after the publication of the first conclusions of the Serbian National Security Council, the Government of Serbia adopted the Conclusion on February 27, 2022, which foresees the suspension and postponement of all activities (military exercises) with foreign partners. The moratorium on participation in military exercises, which applies equally to the West and the East, is not time-bound in the given document.

As a reminder, this is not the first time that Serbia has declared a moratorium on military exercises. In September 2020, the Government of Serbia made a similar decision, primarily forced by the then-upcoming trilateral exercise “Slavic Brotherhood 2020” with Russia and Belarus in conditions of deteriorating relations between Europe and Russia due to the unrest after the controversial elections in Belarus. Although even then the moratorium referred to overall military exercises, it was still limited to six months.

Under the current circumstances, a year after the moratorium was declared, in February 2022, the Ministry of Defense initiated for the first time the change of the Government’s decisions in this domain, while in the same period, during his stay in the United States, the Chief of General Staff of the Serbian Armed Forces General Milan Mojsilović spoke with his American colleague on the modalities of improving mutual military cooperation. The first hint about the cancellation of the moratorium and the participation of the Serbian Armed Forces in this year’s “Platinum Wolf 2023” exercise was given by the US State Department adviser Derek Chollet, when he thanked the President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vučić, for his constructive approach during the talks in Ohrid and the re-engagement of Serbia in military exercises with the USA.

After the media reported on the planned event and due to the reactions of part of the public, both the Ministry of Defense and Chief of General Staff Mojsilović explained that, from a formal point of view, it was an exception to the existing moratorium and that the Government of Serbia adopted the Conclusion approving the implementation of the “Platinum Wolf” exercises on March 16.

“Platinum Wolf” – from 2014 until today

Serbia is engaged in the organization and implementation of several types of multinational exercises within the Platinum series – “Platinum Lion”, “Platinum Eagle” and “Platinum Wolf”. The overall goal of the Platinum series is to increase the interoperability (the ability to act together across borders) and the operational capabilities of the militaries of the participating countries. “Platinum Lion” is conducted on the territory of Bulgaria, while “Platinum Eagle” is held in Romania – and members of the Serbian Armed Forces have been regularly participating in these exercises since the middle of the last decade. Since 2014, the international military exercise “Platinum Wolf” has been organized in Serbia, in either May or June, at the “Jug” base and at the “Borovac” range.

From the very beginning, the United States has been a permanent participant, and since 2016, the National Guard of the Federal State of Ohio has also participated in the preparation of the exercises, whose goal is to check the ability to achieve joint tasks in peace operations across the world. In addition, individual members of NATO, including those from the region – Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Slovenia, North Macedonia and Montenegro – have regularly participated in the past 7 cycles of “Platinum Wolf” exercises. Before making this month’s decision, the last time the “Platinum Wolf” exercise was held was in June 2021, after a one-year break due to the coronavirus pandemic.

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