Serbia and Ukraine are much closer than it seems

For some reason, the news that Serbia sent Ukraine financial aid of $32.4 million in March did not provoke much interest in both countries. Several Ukrainian portals reported this confirmation from the Ukrainian Ministry of Finance, obtained by the Liga portal, pointing out that it was “noteworthy” that the aid came from a country maintaining economic ties with Russia that did not join the EU’s economic sanctions against Moscow.

And really, is this friendly transaction between two governments worthy of media attention? It certainly is, but not because it is a matter of curiosity that the alleged Russian ally has been doing something unique and unrecorded. Serbia or Ukraine do not deserve this often-present stereotype.
The latest financial support for Ukraine is not small at all for Serbia. It is equal to the annual budget of one of its medium-sized cities, which has about 60,000 inhabitants. It is also not unprecedented. Serbia provided €3 million to Ukraine to help vulnerable children and another €1.5 million to displaced persons, just a few months after Russia started its aggression on Ukraine. Along with financial packages, Serbia sent material aid, medical vehicles, electric generators, water purification plants, and other humanitarian assistance to Ukraine.

Serbia is not part of the international coalition that supplies Ukraine with weapons and military materials. It has proclaimed neutrality regarding the conflict, and its authorities repeat that Serbia does not supply weapons to any parties. However, there are convincing reports that Serbia still delivers weapons to Ukraine without interfering with the deliveries made through intermediary countries.

A year ago, Reuters published parts of classified Pentagon documents, according to which Serbia agreed to supply arms to Kyiv or has sent them already. In the meantime, videos on (primarily Russian) social media accounts, mostly of artillery ammunition with labels of Serbian manufacturers allegedly used by the Ukrainian army, appeared sporadically.

However, Serbia’s most convincing support for Ukraine’s defence against aggression is at the political level, even though it is often overlooked. Stereotypes about Serbia as Russia’s ally and therefore Ukraine’s adversary are too often resorted to because it is easier and more efficient that way, even though the facts lead to the opposite conclusion.

Since the first resolution of the UN General Assembly in March 2022, Serbia has consistently been among the countries that have condemned Russia’s aggression and demanded its immediate withdrawal from Ukraine. Serbia voted for four such resolutions in the UN, including the one condemning Russia’s annexation of four eastern regions of Ukraine in October 2022. It was a big surprise for many that Serbia also voted for the exclusion of Russia from the UN Human Rights Council in April 2022. However, only someone superficial and prone to stereotypes could be surprised.

Serbia’s position in global forums regarding the Russian invasion of Ukraine is identical to the one it has in regional organisations. Last February, together with nine other countries in Southeast Europe, Serbia signed a declaration according to which Russian aggression against Ukraine was a flagrant violation of international law and the greatest threat to European security. Then, at a summit in Tirana with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the leaders of the region pledged to continue supporting Ukraine until its victory.

“I don’t understand people (in Serbia) who express anti-Ukraine sentiments. I understand their position on Russia. Ukraine has never done anything against Serbia. They are our Slavic brothers and we try to have good relations”, said Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, one of the signatories of the regional declaration, in Tirana at the time.

His meetings with the Ukrainian leader Zelenskyy have been frequent in the last year, and both consider them significant and friendly. “I noted the importance of Serbia’s participation in the implementation of the Peace Formula”, stated President Zelenskyy after their meeting last February, thanking Serbia for its support of Ukrainian sovereignty, the aid it provided, and the acceptance of Ukrainian refugees.

Serbia did not impose economic sanctions on Russia. When it decided on it at the very start of the Russian aggression against Ukraine, it pointed out that it could change that decision when it affected its economic and political interests. However, the aspect of sanctions has been at the centre of the usual portrayal of Serbian positioning towards Russian aggression against Ukraine for too long, with less justification.

For President Zelenskyy, for example, it does not pose any problem to maintain constant and solid partnership communication with the Serbian leader Vučić. Serbia’s political, humanitarian, financial, and quite possibly military support for Ukraine is continuous and not at all symbolic, and as such, it has long since put aside the fact that Serbia has not imposed economic sanctions on Russia.

Not surprisingly, those who recognise the partnership and friendly essence of Serbia’s relationship with Ukraine are in Moscow. While the Kremlin, in its official statements, continues to characterise Serbian President Vučić as the leader of a friendly nation and a representative of partnership policy towards Russia (even though there were exceptions to this), its propaganda channels often attack him as an insincere partner, completely turned towards the West, and thus Ukraine.

In the latest such offensive review, Russian media described Vučić’s meeting with Emmanuel Macron in Paris earlier this week as humiliating. “He came to Paris to beg and did not have the strength to stand up to the head of the Élysée Palace”, Russian Gazette wrote about the Serbian-French summit, conveying, in fact, the Kremlin’s sincere position about the Serbian president, one that they usually do not state themselves but leave to their controlled media.

The problem for Moscow is that the last of as many as 20 meetings between President Vučić and Macron will result in the purchase of 12 French Rafale fighter jets, which represent Serbia’s final strategic shift away from the traditional attachment to Russian weapons inherited from the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia.

Serbia and Ukraine do not have any problems with their mutual relations. These relations are several levels higher than an ordinary partnership. The majority of Serbian citizens are on the side of Russia on an emotional level, even when it invades the friendly people of Ukraine. This is a factor that no Serbian leader, not even Vučić, could ignore when creating policies regarding this conflict. But only a brief overview of Belgrade’s official decisions regarding Ukraine, including the financial package of $32.4 million from last March, clearly shows where Serbia really stands. It is much closer to Ukraine than some other countries that think that by imposing sanctions on Russia, they have done enough for Ukraine and its people.