Moscow has raised suspicions in Brussels with the deployment of two anti-aircraft systems to Serbia for a joint military drill. Belgrade is pursuing closer NATO and EU links while maintaining longtime ties with Russia.
Russia's defense ministry said on Thursday it has sent its advanced air-defense S-400 missile system to Serbia for a joint exercise.
The S-400 and a Pantsir anti-aircraft gun and missile system will be deployed at Batajnica base outside the capital, Belgrade, a ministry statement added.
The move marks the first time the weapon has been sent abroad for a training deployment.
Serbia's defense ministry said the live-fire exercises — dubbed Slavic Shield 2019 and which run until October 29 — aimed to simulate the "use of a joint (combat) group...in defending... against enemy reconnaissance and offensive actions."
The exercises began on Wednesday but were not made public until a day later.
Moscow woos Belgrade
The move underlines Moscow's wish to keep a traditional ally on side even as Belgrade pursues links with NATO and the European Union.
Serbia has kept close ties with Russia, a historical "Orthodox big brother" whose people also share Slavic origins.
Russian President Vladimir Putin received a rock star welcome when he traveled to Serbia in January.
Serbia declared military neutrality in 2006 and joined NATO's Partnership for Peace program in 2015. The Balkan country does not, however, seek full membership in the US-led alliance.
Belgrade has depended on Moscow's support over its refusal to recognize the independence of its former southern province of Kosovo, which seceded in 2008 after a bloody guerrilla uprising. NATO peacekeepers remain in Kosovo.
Historic military links
Serbia's military still relies heavily on ex-Soviet weapons technology and has procured Russian MiG-29 fighter jets as well as helicopters, tanks and armoured personnel carriers in recent years.
The Russian S-400 missile system is causing concern in the West due to its advanced capabilities that can inflict significant damage on enemies.
When Turkey signed a $2.5 billion (€2.25 billion) deal with Moscow earlier this year to purchase the technology, Washington suspended Ankara's military from its F-35 fighter jet program and threatened other sanctions.
mm/rt (AFP, dpa, Reuters)