The United States has accused Russia of trying to destabilise Europe and urged Serbia to take action over Moscow’s intelligence operations against Belgrade.
Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic acknowledged late last week that at least one Russian spy had made contact with members of his country’s military, after surveillance footage of such a meeting was posted online.
He said the video was filmed last December and showed Russia’s former deputy military attaché to Belgrade, Georgy Kleban, handing a plastic bag containing an envelope full of cash to a retired Serbian lieutenant colonel identified as ZK.
Mr Vucic said the footage was not filmed by Belgrade’s security services but that “on several occasions” they had “gathered audio and video evidence of contacts between Kleban and members of the Serbian army.”
Mr Vucic said he did not blame Russian president Vladimir Putin for the spy scandal, however, and insisted it would not damage close relations between Belgrade and Moscow or jeopardise his planned visit to Russia on December 4th.
The Kremlin, meanwhile, has suggested that western powers are trying to discredit Russia and increase pressure on Serbia to cut its political, military and economic ties to Moscow amid a geopolitical struggle for influence in the Balkans.
“We are concerned about reports of improper Russian interference in Serbia. The United States supports Serbia’s efforts to investigate the incident and urges the government to hold those responsible for these illegal activities accountable,” a spokesman for the US state department told Radio Free Europe.
“The Russian government is trying to destabilise Europe through military pressure, malicious cyber activity and malign influence in many countries that are allies, partners and friends of the United States. We have been clear with the Russian government at the highest levels: you must end your destabilising activities around the world.”
It is not clear who filmed the high-quality surveillance footage or posted it to YouTube last week, but it has embarrassed Mr Vucic and other Belgrade officials who portray Russia as a “brotherly” nation that shares Serbia’s Slavic and Orthodox traditions, defends its interests and backs its opposition to Kosovo’s independence.
Russia has supplied tanks and fighter jets to Belgrade in recent years and last month sent troops and high-tech hardware to Serbia for their latest joint military exercises, during which Mr Vucic confirmed the purchase of an advanced Pantsir air-defence system from Moscow.
“We do of course have concerns not just about deployment of Russian military equipment on the territory of Serbia, but the possibility of Serbia acquiring significant Russian military systems,” Matthew Palmer, a senior US envoy to the Balkans, said this month.
“We hope our Serbian partners will be careful and cautious about any such transactions.”
The US has sanctioned Russia’s vast arms industry in response to Moscow’s aggression in Ukraine and Thomas Zarzecki, a state department official who oversees implementation of such measures, met Serbian officials on November 8th.
The US embassy in Belgrade said the “purpose of the visit was not to announce a decision on sanctions” and that US diplomats would continue to work with Serbia “to ensure clarity” on the issue and “avoid misunderstanding”.
Serbia refuses to sign up to western sanctions on Russia and, while seeking EU membership, it does not want to join Nato, unlike the rest of a Balkan region where Moscow is steadily losing influence and has seen alleged covert operations exposed in recent years by countries including Montenegro, Greece and Bulgaria.
“Vucic may be playing a double game,” Dimitar Bechev, a Balkans expert at the University of North Carolina, said of the latest spy scandal.
“This case serves him well, as he can now go to the West and say: ‘You see, I’m also a victim of Russian meddling, just like you on the other side of Atlantic, so everything you hear about me being a stooge of the Russians is not correct.’”
“It’s also possible that someone is trying to embarrass Vucic,” he told The Irish Times.
“Whoever is behind it, I don’t think it will cause a big turnaround with the Russians or that Serbia will cut ties with them. . .Vucic will try to boost his pro-western credentials for a time, but I don’t think he will reverse any of the deals he has done with the Russians.”