Russia began delivering a gift of six MiG-29 fighter jets to Serbia this week, in a move that could raise tensions between the EU candidate country and its neighbours in the Balkans.
Moscow is giving the secondhand jets to Serbia for free, but they are arriving disassembled and Belgrade will have to pay close to €200 million to rebuild them.
It will take some time before the newly delivered MiGs are in good enough shape to start flying, putting in doubt their ability to really strengthen the Serbian armed forces.
The Serbian government will present the refurbished aircraft to the public on 20 October, at a parade on Belgrade Liberation Day, which marks the liberation of the capital in World War II. The Russian defence minister will also to attend the event.
The first two dismantled MiGs arrived from Russia on 2 October aboard an AN-124 military transport aircraft and another two came a day later. The delivery of all six aircraft, equipment, weaponry and spare parts will be completed by 6 October.
The first delivery was received at the Batajnica military airfield near Belgrade by Defence Minister Aleksandar Vulin and senior officials of the army.
“We will be able to proudly say that for the first time since 1987 our air force is getting new machines,” Vulin said in a press release, adding that they “will make our army stronger, more organized and more modern.”
West, neighbours watching closely
Serbia’s moves to improve military ties with Moscow have worried the West and many neighbouring countries, including Bosnia-Herzegovina and NATO member Croatia, both with fresh memories of the war that accompanied Yugoslavia’s collapse in the 1990s.
Serbia has been an official candidate to join the European Union since 2012, but talks have progressed slowly and the country has established closer ties with Russia. Moscow was Serbia’s closest ally during the Balkan wars of the 1990s, with Russia providing imports during a Western embargo. The two countries are both Slavic and Eastern Orthodox.
Though it is almost completely surrounded by NATO countries, Serbia is not a member and it declared military neutrality in a parliamentary declaration ten years ago.
Serbia is a member of the Partnership for Peace program and in 2015 signed an Individual Partnership Action Plan (IPAP) with NATO, which is considered the highest level of cooperation for a non-member country.
The donation of six Russian secondhand MiGs was arranged in December 2016 by the then Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić and Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoygu. At the time, the assembly, repair, and refurbishing costs were estimated to be at roughly €185 million.
After the “new” MiGs of the Serbian Air Force are unveiled, they will be sent to the Overhaul Institute for modernisation. It is still unknown when the aircraft will become operable. Some sources say in a few months, while others say it will happen in just a few weeks, as they have already been modernised and have undergone most of the overhaul in Russia.
During that time, the Serbian Air Force fleet, consisting of four MiG-29 fighter jets and two MiG-21s, will be mostly grounded because the last flight hours are being saved for standby duty.