By Aleksandar Vasovic
BELGRADE (Reuters) – Serbia plans to purchase Rafale multipurpose fighter jets from France, President Aleksandar Vucic said on Monday, which experts saw as the latest sign of Belgrade distancing itself from its traditional military supplier and ally Russia.
Serbia, now a candidate to join the EU, has been under pressure from Europe to scale back its links to Moscow. It has voted against Russia three times at the United Nations since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began in February.
“We have been negotiating this purchase of 12 new jets for a year, and we are also looking at buying another 12 used (Western) planes from another country,” Vucic told Reuters. He did not specify the type of the used planes.
Milan Karagaca of the Belgrade-based Center for Foreign Policy and a former military attache to NATO, said: “The fact that the planes are made by France could indicate Serbia … has disconnected itself from Russia’s military technology, .. politically it is a signal of approaching closer to the EU.”
Serbia and Dassault Aviation discussed the purchase of the 12 Dassault Rafale jets, France’s La Tribune weekly reported last week.
In 2019 Serbia bought France’s Mistral surface-to-air missiles and in 2016 it acquired helicopters from Airbus.
Croatia, which is an EU and NATO member and Serbia’s wartime foe from the 1990s, also operates Rafale jets.
“We have an interest in this (procurement of Rafales), we are looking at the best way to pay for them without jeopardising our public finances,” Vucic said without elaborating further.
Serbia’s military is largely based on ex-Soviet technology. It operates MiG-29 fighters and MI-35M helicopter gunships and its air defences are mainly comprised of Russian missile systems and radars. Serbia’s ground forces also use Soviet-made T-72 tanks and armoured personnel carriers.
Vucic said Belgrade is also considering buying additional ground attack planes to replace those made in the now-defunct Yugoslavia.
“There are three countries … there’s a big competition there,” he said.
Serbia aspires to join the EU, but has refused to join NATO which bombed it in 1999 to drive Serbian forces out of Kosovo.
(Reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic; Editing by Peter Graff)