Serbia’s air force received two Russian MiG-29 fighter jets as part of an arms purchase that could heighten tensions in the Balkans and increase Moscow’s influence in the region.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic attended the ceremony on Tuesday at a military airport close to the Serbian capital, Belgrade, thanking Russian President Vladimir Putin for helping make Serbia’s armed forces stronger.
In October, Serbia received six MiG-29s from Russia, which has also promised the delivery of 30 battle tanks and 30 armoured vehicles. Serbia, a Russian ally, was at war with neighbours Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s during the bloody break-up of the former Yugoslavia.
Moscow gave the secondhand jets to Serbia for free and the two that flew in on Tuesday underwent extensive overhauls. Repairs on the six other fighters will cost Serbia about $213m.
Vucic, a former ultranationalist, said the repaired MiGs should be named after Serbian pilots and other “heroes” who died during the “NATO aggression” in 1999, when Serbia’s air force was depleted during the alliance’s 78-day air war against the Balkan state because of its bloody crackdown against Kosovo Albanian separatists.
Vucic also said Serbia might reintroduce compulsory military service, nine years after abolishing it, to help improve the combat readiness of its army in the Balkans, where tensions occasionally flare.
Serbia, which claims military neutrality, is negotiating additional arms purchases from Russia, including attack and transport helicopters and air defence systems.
Vucic said he expects the eight refurbished MiGs to fly at a military parade that Putin is expected to attend in Belgrade in November.
Serbia faces a mini arms race with NATO-member Croatia, which in March agreed to buy 12 used F-16 fighter aircraft from Israel for $500m.