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Serbian, Croatian volunteers fight on Ukraine's front line

Ivica Petrovic in Belgrade | Sinisa Bogdanic in Zagreb
January 31, 2023

Is Russia's mercenary force, the Wagner Group, recruiting volunteers in Serbia to fight for Russia in Ukraine? One thing is certain: Serbian and Croatian volunteers can be found on both sides of the war.

A mural depicting mercenaries of Russia's Wagner Group that reads 'Wagner Group – Russian knights' on a wall in Belgrade, Serbia, September 20, 2022
Murals such as this one, which describes the Wagner Group as 'Russian knights,' appeared in Belgrade after the invasion of Ukraine last FebruaryImage: Darko Vojinovic/AP/picture alliance/dpa

A red or white skull in a circle on a black background is the emblem of the notorious Russian paramilitary unit of mercenaries known as the Wagner Group. For years now, this private army has been intervening in conflicts around the world, spreading fear and terror in the process. In Ukraine too, it is fighting alongside the regular Russian army.

Soon after the Russian invasion of Ukraine began on February 24, 2022, murals extolling the group appeared around the Serbian capital, Belgrade. Is the Wagner Group recruiting Serbian volunteers for the war in Ukraine?

Videos doing the rounds on social media would appear to confirm that it is. These videos show Serbian fighters in Russian units in Ukraine. Speaking in Serbian, most of them talk about the training they received and their reasons for joining the war.

People hold up Russian and Serbian flags during a rally organized by a right-wing organization in support of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Belgrade, Serbia, March 24, 2022
Traditionally, there is strong support for Russia within Serbian societyImage: VLADIMIR ZIVOJINOVIC/AFP/Getty Images

The Serbian authorities have to date not commented on the videos, which critics say is out of consideration for the traditionally strong pro-Russian attitude in Serbia. This is also seen as the reason why Serbia, a candidate country for membership of the European Union, has not imposed sanctions on Russia.

Serving in foreign armies is illegal for Serbs

Serbian citizens have been actively involved in the conflict in Ukraine since the occupation and annexation of Crimea in 2014, even though Serbs are prohibited by law from serving in foreign armies.

According to the Defense Ministry and security forces in Belgrade, information about Serbs fighting in Ukraine is carefully recorded. But just how many Serbian volunteers have been registered by the authorities has never been made public.

Serbs fighting in Ukraine since before 2022 invasion

The Ukrainian Embassy in Serbia estimated in 2019 that about 300 people from Serbia were fighting in the war that was already raging in eastern Ukraine at the time — all of them on the Russian side.

Yevgeny Prigozhin (left) shows Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) around his factory near St Petersburg, September 20, 2010
Yevgeny Prigozhin (left), founder of the Wagner Group, has denied it is recruiting fighters in SerbiaImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/A. Druzhinin

Serbian security forces say over 30 people have been sentenced for participating in the Ukraine war. This has not prevented extreme right-wing organizations from drumming up support for the Wagner Group on social media.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of the Wagner Group, has denied it is recruiting fighters in Serbia. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has publicly condemned a now-deleted Wagner recruiting ad on the websites of the Serbian service of the Russian state-run media company Russia Today.

Opposition to Wagner within Serbia

The graffiti featuring the Wagner emblem in Belgrade has since been painted over, after protests by activists from the group calling itself Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians and Serbs United against War. This group brings together citizens from Russia, Belarus and Ukraine who fled to Serbia to escape the regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Graffiti of the emblem of the Wagner Group covered in green paint, Belgrade, Serbia, January 25, 2023
Anti-war activists have painted over graffiti featuring the emblem of the Wagner Group in BelgradeImage: Ivica Petrovic/DW

Serbian anti-war activists have also brought charges against several civil servants, accusing them of not having prevented the recruitment of volunteers for the war in Ukraine. They have also been vocal in their opposition to various right-wing organizations in Serbia that they accuse of bolstering the image of the Wagner Group in public, which they say is an attempt to mobilize Serbian citizens for a war abroad and is, therefore, illegal.

Croatia backs Ukraine

Croatia, one of Serbia's neighbors and a member of both the European Union and NATO, fully supports the EU's policy on Russia. Both the government in the capital, Zagreb, and most Croatians have supported Ukrainian citizens who fled to Croatia after the Russian invasion. Refugees even enjoy the same status as Croatian citizens on the labor market.

People hold up Ukrainian and Croatian flags and pro-Ukraine banners in a demonstration of support for Ukraine, Zagreb, Croatia, February 26, 2022
The Croatian government and most Croatians have supported Ukrainian refugees who fled after the Russian invasionImage: Oksana Martinjuk

Most of the Croatian men and women fighting in Ukraine are on the side of the Ukrainians. In the first half of 2022, private television channels broadcast interviews with several dozen people who had either joined the Ukrainian armed forces or were on their way to Ukraine to do so. Unofficial estimates put the number of Croatian citizens fighting in Ukraine at between 70 and 80.

Croatian volunteers in Ukraine since 2014

Interviews and other media reports suggest these are the same people who supported Ukraine at the start of the crisis in 2014. However, there has never been any official — and above all accurate — information about the number of Croatian volunteers who have traveled to Ukraine.

Vjekoslav Prebeg arrives at Clinic Hospital Dubrava for a medical check-up on September 22, 2022
Vjekoslav Prebeg, of Croatia, was fighting for Ukraine when he was captured by Russian soldiers near Mariupol and tried by a Russian courtImage: Tomislav Miletic/PIXSELL/picture alliance

According to Russian media, most of the fighters who have arrived in Ukraine from Croatia since last February joined the Azov Regiment. The Defense Ministry in Moscow puts the number at about 200.

Extreme right-winger fighting for Ukraine

Denis Seler, the former leader of the fan group of the football club Dinamo Zagreb, who has repeatedly fought with Ukraine since 2014, believes this figure is too high.

Moscow has described the right-wing extremist as the "organizer of Croatian mercenaries" in Ukraine. Speaking to the Croatian daily newspaper Vecernji list, Seler himself described his motivation for fighting in Ukraine as follows: "In Ukraine, a battle is being fought for the white European race, its culture and history."

Croatian government warns citizens against going to war

Croatian authorities have repeatedly emphasized that joining the war in Ukraine is an extremely risky endeavor and that citizens do so at their own risk. This explains why negotiations to secure the release of Vjekoslav Prebeg, a Croatian citizen fighting for Ukraine,who was captured by the Russians near Mariupol and tried by a Russian court, were so discreet. In September, he was able to return to Croatia as part of a prisoner exchange agreement.

President of Croatia Zoran Milanovic gestures as he speaks during a press briefing, Geneva, Switzerland, April 7, 2022
Croatian President Zoran Milanovic has described the war in Ukraine as a proxy war between Washington and MoscowImage: MARTIAL TREZZINI/Keystone/picture alliance

A handful of Croatian citizens have joined the war on the Russian side. The identity of only one of them is known to the public: Mirela Jakupanec is working as a medical orderly for the Russians. Some sources refer to her as a nurse, others as a doctor. Her pro-Russian statements have been disseminated mainly by sites that are known for spreading fake news and Kremlin propaganda.

Despite all the solidarity with Kyiv, Ukrainian soldiers are not welcome in Croatia. The parliament in Zagreb rejected a government proposal to train Ukrainians on Croatian territory as part of the EU Military Assistance Mission in support of Ukraine. Opinion polls had previously indicated that almost 60% of Croats were opposed to the idea.

In contrast to his government's stance, Croatian President Zoran Milanovic has publicly voiced the theory that the conflict is a proxy war between Washington and Moscow — a statement that earned him the praise of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

This article was originally published in German.