Serbia has feted Vladimir Putin with a military parade to mark seven decades since the Russians liberated Belgrade from the Nazis, but leaders balanced their reverence for old allies with a statement on their future in Europe.

The Russian president was among thousands who on Thursday watched more than 3,000 soldiers and tanks march in Belgrade's first military parade since 1985, when it was the capital of Yugoslavia.

But the parade and Putin's welcome came at a time when Serbia is vying for acceptance into the European Union, while the bloc accuses Russia of formenting war in Ukraine.

Nazi-occupied Belgrade fell to the Red Army and Yugoslav partisans on October 20, 1944, but the parade was held on Thursday, October 16, to accommodate Putin, on his way to Milan for an EU-Asia summit set to be dominated by Ukraine and fears of a new European gas crisis.

Putin, who was given the Order of the Republic of Serbia, the country's highest state decoration, told his Serbian counterpart Tomislav Nikolic: "Russia, just as it was in the past, will always see Serbia as our closest ally."

Despite the red-carpet treatment and lofty talk of Slav brotherhood, Serbia's prime minister Aleksandar Vucic said his country would not veer from a strategic shift to the west.

"Serbia is on its European path, and we will not give up on that path," he said as he sat beside Putin.

Serbia, which began negotiations this year to join the EU, has refused to join the Western sanctions imposed on Russia for its backing of pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, despite EU pressure to align its foreign policy.

Belgrade still has time, however, with EU accession unlikely before 2020 at the earliest.

Source: Agencies