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Russia to open defence ministry office in Serbia in push to deepen military ties

FILE PHOTO: Russian-made MiG-29 fighter jets are parked on a runway during the air show at Batajnica military airfield in Belgrade, Serbia, October 20, 2017. REUTERS/Djordje Kojadinovic/File Photo

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia has authorised its defence ministry to open an office in Serbia, a government document showed, as Moscow pushes to expand military ties with its traditional Balkan ally even as Belgrade seeks to join the European Union.

Serbia last month suspended military drills with foreign troops for six months, citing pressure from the EU to withdraw from joint exercises with Russia and Belarus.

The Russian government order, dated Oct. 15 and signed by Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, said the head of the proposed office would assist in resolving military and technical questions over Russian-Serbian cooperation.

The agreement, once signed by both parties, would give the Russian official in Serbia the right to visit Serbian divisions that use Russian weapons and military equipment, provided prior notice and consent were given.

In a short statement later on Tuesday, Serbia’s defence ministry said “a legal procedure that precedes the concluding of the agreement” had already been launched.

Serbia, whose military mainly uses ex-Soviet weapons technology, has procured MiG-29 fighter jets as well as Mi-35 helicopter gunships, T-72 tanks and armoured personnel carriers from Russia in recent years.

On Oct. 10, in a show of revamped military power, Serbia’s army staged a major training exercise, demonstrating combat use of Russian-made weapons, including the Pantsir anti-aircraft system. It also displayed combat drones recently acquired from China.

Serbia is performing a delicate balancing act between its ambition to join the EU and traditional ties with Russia and China, which support its refusal to recognise the independence of its former southern province Kosovo.

Russia, meanwhile, is vying to keep fellow Orthodox Christian, Slavic Serbia within its sphere of geopolitical influence, with the opening of a defence ministry office a signal of Moscow’s intent.

Reporting by Alexander Marrow in Moscow and Aleksandar Vasovic in Belgrade; Writing by Alexander Marrow; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Gareth Jones

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