Serbia to buy French fighter jets in pivot away from Russia

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Serbia is expected to sign the largest weapons deal in its modern history with France, in a sign how Russia’s war in Ukraine is prompting one of Moscow’s closest allies to diversify its arms purchases.

Belgrade is planning a €3bn order for a dozen French Rafale fighter jets from Dassault Aviation, marking a long-term commitment to the west after decades of relying on Russian aircraft.

Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić has frustrated European capitals by refusing to join western sanctions against the regime of Vladimir Putin and by keeping Serbia open for Russian business — while still maintaining its bid to join the EU.

But as pressure from Europe and the US increased, Vučić started to allow shipments of Serbian-made ammunition to Ukraine, and to buy western weapons in addition to Chinese and Russian systems currently in use by the Serbian armed forces.

“The contract is expected to be signed in the next two months and in the presence of the president of France,” Vučić said in Paris last week after meeting French President Emmanuel Macron. “We are determined to buy new aircraft that would significantly improve our combat capabilities.”

A Serbian defence official told the Financial Times that the deal was “negotiated more than 90 per cent” but that the two sides still had to agree on the financial terms.

The war in Ukraine has “hastened diversification for us”, the official said.

“We have relied on Soviet-type technology, and we have some long tails, a need to maintain that equipment,” the official said. “Due to geopolitical circumstances now it is not even feasible — even if you wish — to buy from Russia anyway.”

Macron has in recent months used increasingly hawkish rhetoric about the risk to European security if Russia is not defeated in Ukraine. He has also focused increasingly on countries that used to be in Russia’s sphere of influence, such as Moldova.

His outreach to Vučić and support for Serbia joining the EU are part of that strategy, with the two leaders also discussing the former Yugoslav country’s role in European ammunition production.

“Our economic relations have gotten a real boost . . . and we can go further,” said Macron after hosting Vučić in Paris. Discussions over defence contracts and energy projects “are a sign of political trust and a desire to expand our relations”.

The Elysée palace declined to comment.

Even as he lauded Vučić, Macron has also signalled he wants Serbia to take further steps towards the west, including by recognising Kosovo’s statehood. “It is important for Serbia to continue to make its European choices concrete, such as by aligning on our decisions on foreign policy.”

Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić, left, met French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris last week © Sarah Meyssonnier/Pool/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

The Serbian official noted the change in tone: “Paris was not particularly interested in this part of Europe before. But that has changed.”

“The Rafale is an important milestone, but not the whole story,” the official said, adding that the Balkan country has also bought French radar and missile systems and placed orders for Airbus transport planes.

Serbia, whose Soviet MiG29s reach the end of their lifespan in the coming decade, wants to ensure uninterrupted air force prowess.

Neighbouring EU and Nato member Croatia, regarded as a yardstick by Serbia’s armed forces, also ordered 12 Rafale jets from France in 2021, although those planes are used and cost only €1bn.

In addition to the dozen planes, the Rafale deal will include auxiliary systems, training and maintenance.

“It is very important that air-to-air missiles, which will ensure control of the airspace, go in the set with the planes,” retired air force general Sreto Malinović told the FT. Serbia also needed aircraft radars and associated attack-navigation equipment to be part of the deal, he said.

While Serbia resented Nato after the US-led military alliance bombed Belgrade in 1999, it now had a “long list of things we wish to buy from the US”, the Serbian official said — though Washington has so far only approved the sale of Humvee military vehicles.

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has led European countries to boost defence spending and helped France become the second-biggest arms exporter after the United States last year.

Given the renewed popularity of the Rafale, its maker Dassault Aviation faces a challenge to produce the aircraft at a faster rate given its existing backlog: last year it delivered only 13 jets from its factory near Bordeaux, short of the 15 targeted. It aims to make 20 this year, and then eventually ramp up to 36 annually.

“We are capable of it, I am confident,” said chief executive Éric Trappier in an interview with Boursorama in March. “It takes about 400 suppliers to help make a single Rafale . . . so we have to bring them along and resolve labour shortages.” 

Dassault declined to comment about the Serbian order.


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