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Arms for Ukraine: Can the Western Balkans help?

Elona Elezi in Tirana
March 28, 2024

In February, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called for joint arms production with the countries of the Western Balkans. Can these countries help? And would they be able to produce enough to meet Ukraine's needs?

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (left) and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic (right) look at each other as they pose for a family photo with other leaders after the Ukraine-Southeast Europe summit in Tirana, Albania, February 28, 2024
Ukraine's Volodymyr Zelenskyy (left) proposed co-producing arms with the countries of the Western Balkans like Aleksandar Vucic's SerbiaImage: Armando Babani/AP Photo/picture alliance

Ever since Russia invaded Ukraine over two years ago, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has repeatedly appealed for more military aid from the USA and Ukraine's allies in the EU.

At the Ukraine-Southeast Europe summit in Tirana, Albania, in late February he went one step further and suggested co-producing arms with the countries of the Western Balkans. "I propose a joint forum for the defense industry between Ukraine, the Balkans and our partners," he said.

This begs the question as to whether the Western Balkan region is technically capable of fulfilling Zelenskyy's wish. And if it is, will Serbia, which is known for having strong political ties with Russia, be willing to do so?

Why did Zelenskyy single out the Western Balkans?

"While Western Balkan countries do not have a considerable production of major arms, they do have a number of ammunition factories, and ammunition is what Ukraine is interested in," says Katarina Djokic, researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute's Arms Transfers Programme.

Djokic told DW that most of the region's arms production is concentrated in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia and Serbia, with several companies producing ammunition in a wide range of calibers and for different types of arms, including artillery systems and mortars.

"We have little reliable data on how much ammunition they could produce annually — and it is surely far from Ukraine's current needs — but as Ukraine seeks as much ammunition as it can get, the interest in the Western Balkans' production is not surprising," said Djokic.

What Western Balkan countries produce arms?

The latest report from the Southeastern and Eastern Europe Clearinghouse for the Control of Small Arms and Light Weapons (SEESAC) in 2021 says that Serbia is the leading arms and ammunition exporter in the region, accounting for 65.79% of its total exports, with profits of some $1.3 billion (€1.2 billion). It is followed by Bosnia-Herzegovina, which accounts for 31.75% of the region's total exports.

People are seen sitting on a podium in front of the flags of several NATO member states at a ceremony marking the opening of the NATO airbase in Kucova, Albania, March 4, 2024
NATO recently spent over €50 million ($54.26 million) modernizing the Kucova Air Base in Albania to bolster its presence in the regionImage: Rashela Shehu/DW

According to data provided by Balkan countries themselves, Albania exports ammunition, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro export 0.5 in (12.7 mm) caliber arms and automatic weapons, ammunition, bombs and missiles, North Macedonia mainly exports ammunition and bombs, while Serbia exports a wider range of ammunition and arms, including bombs, grenades, torpedoes, mines, missiles and similar munitions of war.

Where does Serbia stand on arms for Ukraine?

Although Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic greeted President Zelenskyy warmly at the Tirana summit, he made no official statement on Zelenskyy's request for joint arms production.

The only statement in this respect came from Albanian PM Edi Rama, who told journalists that President Zelenskyy "spoke to us about the possibility of cooperation, which means investing, production and cooperation, and of course everyone said yes, not only Albania."

Although Serbia has condemned Russia's war in Ukraine, it has never imposed sanctions on the country.

Katarina Djokic, herself a Serb, told DW that Serbia's foreign and security policy position "could be described as opportunistic rather than oriented towards Russia."

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky (left) shakes hands with Albania's Prime Minister Edi Rama (right) during a joint press conference, as part of the Ukraine-Southeast Europe summit in Tirana, Albania, February 28, 2024
Albanian PM Edi Rama (right) told journalists in Tirana that 'everyone' in the Western Balkans region — and not just Albania — was in favor of cooperating with Ukraine on arms productionImage: Adnan Beci/AFP/Getty Images

She says that this is also reflected in the country's arms exports: "It is not a question of whether Serbia would agree to export ammunition to Ukraine, because, based on open intelligence sources, Serbia is already doing that, albeit via third countries," she told DW. "Quite a few photos have circulated on social media showing recently produced Serbian ammunition used by Ukrainian troops. However, the Serbian government perceives this as a sensitive issue in the domestic political arena and is not likely to publicly endorse such exports."

According to Djokic, when US documents leaked last year indicated that Serbia was ready to export arms to Ukraine — or was already doing so — the Serbian president ordered a temporary suspension of all ammunition exports, officially to prioritize supplies to the Serbian Armed Forces, but most likely as a damage control exercise.

"Judging by his recent statements, the 'we cannot export ammunition because we need it' argument is still being used, but it does not mean that Serbian-produced ammunition will not find its way to Ukraine."

What could Albania do?

Ermal Jauri, current chair of the George C. Marshall Albania Alumni Association, sees the recent modernization of the Kucova airbase in Albania with NATO funds as the perfect example of what could be done.

He says that Albania's former ammunition production facilities and military bases are partially functional and certified in accordance with GOST quality standards, which are adopted primarily by the countries of the CIS.

Ermal Jauri, security expert at the George C. Marshall Albania Alumni Association, sits in an office; in the background is an Albanian flag; there are many framed certificates on the wall behind him
Ermal Jauri says that with the right investment, Albania's former ammunition production facilities and military bases could return to full functionality within a short period of timeImage: privat

"With the right investment, these centers could be modernized and return to full functionality within a short period of time," he told DW. Before the 90s, these centers produced mortar ammunition, Kalashnikov, Makarov and Parabellum pistols, Simonov rifles, offensive and defensive grenades and anti-personnel mines.

"If Albania gets involved in such an initiative, it would be taking a big step towards improving the security of the country and the region," he went on.

With or without EU support?

At this year's Munich Security Conference, President Zelenskyy urged EU partners to deliver more ammunition and weapons. His request came just a few weeks after the bloc publicly acknowledged that it was far from reaching its own target of sending millions of artillery shells to Ukraine before the end of March.

Josep Borrell, the EU's top diplomat, earlier this year asked member states to temporarily halt exports of weapons to countries other than Ukraine. "Doing nothing is not an option," he said, stressing that "EU member states should find ways to increase support to Ukraine, particularly the delivery of badly needed ammunition."

So, which European countries are in a position to help Ukraine and the Western Balkans produce arms together?

"The German government has shown an interest in financing ammunition procurement for Ukraine from non-EU countries. France has also indicated it would be open to buying non-EU-produced ammunition for Ukraine," says Djokic. "With both Berlin and Paris on board, using EU funds seems more likely, too."

According to Ermal Jauri, such an initiative cannot be realized without the support of the Western Balkans' NATO and EU allies. "This is not because the allies are unable to pursue the production of ammunition and combat equipment themselves, but their support for creating such an idea in the Western Balkans, I think, would significantly cut the cost of producing this ammunition and military equipment," he said.

Edited by: Aingeal Flanagan

Portrait of a woman with long brown hair
Elona Elezi DW Albanian correspondent