US, Russian forces stage neighboring military drills in Balkan states
Both U.S. and Russian military forces held drills near the Serbian capital of Belgrade Thursday as Moscow hopes to maintain influence over its only remaining ally in the Balkans.
Serbian and Russian defense forces announced that they had launched joint military exercises with roughly 200 troops that are set to last through Tuesday.
The Russian and Serbian drills will include “the destruction of an illegal military formation,” live ammunition shooting and “anti-terrorist” action, the ministries said, according to The Associated Press.
The exercises come as the U.S. continues its Defender Europe 2021 drills launched earlier this month, which include 26 countries and 28,000 multinational forces “all focused on building operational readiness and interoperability between NATO allies and partners,” according to a May 3 announcement from the Defense Department.
Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said at the time that the drills were “defensive in nature, focused on deterring aggression, while preparing our forces to respond to crisis and conduct large-scale combat operations if necessary.”
While Kirby said that the Defender Europe exercise is held each year, the transparency around the 2021 drills marks a difference from years past.
“I’m going to continually talk about what we’re doing — it’s called transparency — it’s a wonderful thing,” he said. “And we’re not getting that out of Moscow and we haven’t. So that’s a big difference right there.”
“It’s a defensive exercise and you will be able to hear us talk about it and communicate to you and to the world what we’re doing and why,” Kirby added.
The U.S. military has said the air and missile defense drills demonstrate “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.”
Serbia has been developing close ties with Russia and China, and on Thursday the country’s interior minister, Aleksandar Vulin, called Russia “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 added, according to the AP.
However, Serbia is also formally seeking membership in the European Union, and is a member of NATO’s Partnership for Peace outreach program.
Russia has sought to maintain influence in the Balkans, where it finds little support from other countries following the region’s bloody civil wars of the 1990s.
The simultaneous military activities come a day after Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov held their first face-to-face meeting, during which Blinken raised “deep concerns” on “Russia’s continued military deployments in and near Ukraine,” among other issues.