What’s Behind the Arms Buildup in the Balkans
No one wants a Balkans arms race, even if it’s a “mini” one. Last May, when Croatia bought a dozen used Rafale fighter jets for $1.2 billion, the Associated Press described it as part of a “mini arms race” with Serbia. In October, the Economist reported on Serbia’s “weapons shopping spree” and $1.4 billion-a-year military budget under the headline “A Balkans arms race.”
In this case, the analysis might be off, but the concern is warranted. While Serbia and Croatia are indeed rapidly building up their respective arsenals, describing this as a simple arms race misunderstands the dynamic at play. In modernizing outdated military hardware left over from the Yugoslav era, Belgrade and Zagreb are not driven by strategic competition or fears of conflict with one another. Rather, elites in both countries are using the process of buying new weapons to advance broader foreign policy goals and, most importantly, improve their domestic political standing. The prospect of war is not realistic, but using arms procurement as an opportunity for saber-rattling can nonetheless destabilize the region.
Toys for the Serbian and Croatian Militaries
Over the past six years, Serbian and Croatian leaders have happily fed the narrative of an arms race as they engaged in a series of high-profile weapons purchases. The good news is that actual procurement has sometimes lagged behind the rhetoric, and, to date, neither side has exceeded the arms control provisions of the Dayton agreement.
Discussion of a regional arms race began in 2015 when Croatia asked the United States to donate 16 Lockheed Martin-produced M270 Multiple Launch Rocket System armed with ballistic missiles. Incumbent Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, then prime minister, responded by announcing: “Either they will have to change their mind, or we will have to find an answer to that.” Serbia quickly started looking to Russia for an answer. During a January 2016 visit to Belgrade, Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister raised expectations by giving a model of the Russian S-300 missile defense system as a gift to Vučić. Over the course of the following year, tensions rose when the Croatian government cited Serbia’s military buildup as possible grounds for reinstituting conscription.
In the end, however, Croatia did not receive U.S. rocket launchers and Serbia did not receive Russian S-300s. Despite the heated rhetoric, both countries faced financial constraints, and the great powers they were courting did not prove as forthcoming as they’d hoped.
Belgrade and Zagreb nevertheless persevered in their pursuit of new weapons, spending billions on defense deals over the last several years. In 2017 Serbia’s largest defense contractor, Yugoimport-SDPR, developed a Šumadija tactical missile with a range of over 280 kilometers. To increase its air policing capabilities, Serbia received MIG-29 fighter jets from Russia and Belarus in 2021. Through a mix of sales and donations Russia also provided Belgrade Mi-35 and Mi-17 military transport helicopters, T-72MS tanks, BRDM-2MS armored reconnaissance vehicles, and a rapid-fire Pantsir S1 anti-aircraft missile system.
Serbia has not been picky whether it was getting hardware from Western or non-Western powers. It plans to buy about 30 military helicopters in the next two years, some from the European multinational Airbus and some from Mil Moscow Helicopter Plant, a subsidiary of Russian Helicopters company. After agreeing to buy the French surface-to-air missile system Mistral, Belgrade is now eyeing the purchase of the Chinese FK-3 anti-aircraft rocket and Israel’s SPIKE LR2 anti-armor missiles. Further, Serbia’s acquisition of six Chinese CH-92A drones, along with the accompanying technology transfers, has allowed it to become the largest drone operator in the Balkans.
Croatia, of course, has kept pace. In 2015 and 2016, Zagreb acquired 12 Panzerhaubitze 2000 howitzers from Germany and 16 Kiowa Warrior helicopters from the United States. It subsequently received AGM-114 Hellfire missiles from Lockheed Martin and, in late 2020, signed a deal for the modernization of 76 Bradley Fighting vehicles alongside associated machine guns and missiles.
Still, as arms control experts have noted, these purchases have yet to exceed internationally agreed restrictions. Article IV of Annex 1B of the Dayton Peace Agreement has been the bedrock of arms control in the Western Balkans since 1995, first under the auspice of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, then, since 2015, by agreement between the signatory states of Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro. In the five categories of weaponry covered by Article IV — battle tanks, armored combat vehicles, artillery, combat aircraft, and combat helicopters — both Serbia and Croatia are still within the mandated limits.
Not Quite an Arms Race
In theory, Croatia and Serbia could use their new weaponry in a future Balkan conflict. Some U.S. analysts noted that Serbia could deploy Šumadija missiles against its neighbors if they took part in another NATO campaign against Belgrade. The drones acquired by Serbia would also be powerful instruments in a hypothetical battle in Kosovo or Bosnia. If the status quo were to break down in Bosnia, the resulting fighting would inevitably suck in both Serbia and Croatia, who might then have occasion to employ their new arsenals. Croatian howitzers and attack helicopters would be effective in the low-land Serbo-Croatian border, while Israeli SPIKE missiles would be a potential equalizer for Serbia. But despite this, Bosnia has been largely absent from the rhetoric surrounding re-armament in both Belgrade and Zagreb.
More importantly, launching a new conflict in the Balkans makes no political or military sense. Indeed, there is no realistic goal that Croatia or Serbia could hope to achieve by attacking one other. It has become almost impossible to control territories inhabited by a hostile population, even for the most powerful militaries. Since 1995, neither the Croatian minority in Serbia nor the Serbian minority in Croatia is large enough to serve as the foundation for separatist ambitions.
What’s more, Croatia has been a member of NATO since 2009. A Serbian attack on Croatia would activate the collective defense clause within Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, prompting NATO’s response against Belgrade. Similarly, NATO still has 3,600 troops in Kosovo as part of the Kosovo Force, ensuring that the Serbo-Albanian dispute over Kosovo will not be resolved militarily.
It would also be folly for Croatia to launch an offensive. The fear of being bogged down in the face of a partisan insurgency played a role in NATO’s 1999 decision not to send ground troops against Serbia. If that threat was enough to deter NATO, it is enough to deter Croatia. Equally important is the fact that NATO-Serbian relations are much different now than in 1999. While Serbia does not seek NATO membership, it is a member of NATO’s Partnership for Peace program, and its Individual Partnership Action Plan represents the highest level of cooperation a non-member state has with the alliance.
Moreover, waging war has become expensive for local capitals. That is why Croatia replaced its conscription military service with a professional army in 2008, and Serbia did the same in 2011. The budget deficit has been a growing concern in Croatia in recent years, impeding defense planning. The Serbian military is experiencing a constant loss of its professional cadre. The region as a whole is lagging behind in socio-economic terms and experiencing a demographic decline. That not only deprives the local leaders of the money and manpower to fight a prolonged war, but it also limits the spoils that any country could hope to achieve through victory.
Arms Procurement in Service of Foreign Policy
So, if they are not preparing for a war, why are Belgrade and Zagreb buying so many weapons? Both countries are conducting overdue military modernization while using the process to achieve other goals. In the realm of foreign policy, Serbia and Croatia are both trying to position themselves amidst growing security anxieties in Eastern Europe and worsening tensions between Russia and the West.
So long as the West perceives Russia as a threat, Serbia has an opportunity to play Russia and the West against each other. In this balancing act, its arms buildup is both an end and a means. Serbia wants to be able to buy weapons from all sides. It also hopes that having a formidable military will enhance its leverage on all sides as well. Military cooperation with Russia is a way for Serbia to increase its bargaining power with the West on outstanding issues like the Kosovo dispute. Serbia knows that the unprovoked use of military force in theaters like Bosnia or Kosovo would attract Western hostility and intervention. However, Belgrade still believes that with more weaponry at its disposal it can do better at the negotiating table.
Croatia, in turn, has used the same regional dynamics to raise its standing in the West. As one of newest members of both NATO and the European Union, Zagreb has tried to portray itself as a Western bulwark in a dangerous region, facing down Russian meddling and an unpredictable Serbia. Croatia’s National Security Strategy of 2017 does not mention Serbia, but it refers to the country’s “Southeastern neighbourhood” as “a source of potential challenges.” Defense modernization serves to promote Croatia as the anchor of regional stability. It also helps Croatia uphold NATO’s target of 2 percent defense spending. Indeed, Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković has stated that purchasing Rafale jets from France takes Croatia’s defense spending beyond NATO’s threshold.
A Lack of Transparency
The arms race narrative also feeds, and feeds off of, a lack of defense sector transparency. Over the past five years there has been a noticeable decline in the transparency of Serbia’s defense sector, particularly in finances and procurement. During this period a number of bad practices have been legalized. For instance, legal amendments have allowed the government to declare whole categories of data confidential under the guise of protecting national security. One of the categories marked confidential in 2016 was human resources management. Hence, the Serbian public cannot find official records about personnel in the defense system, and least of all, personnel drain. Sensationalist reporting on weapons and military modernization goes hand in with preventing the public from learning about military personnel leaving the service on account of unsatisfactory conditions. Were this information more readily available, it would shatter the image of a competent government taking good care of the army, one of the most respected national institutions.
The lack of transparency in defense procurement also drives perceptions of an arms race. Military spending is exempt from Serbia’s Law on Public Procurement. This means that the Serbian Ministry of Defense does not report on confidential procurement, or even provide a lump sum of the total money spent. Nor does it publish whether, when, or with whom confidential procurement contracts are signed. Even in 2019, when legislation on public procurement was amended to align with European standards, the range of national security exemptions was broadened. Unlike in Croatia, long-term planning documents are not disclosed to the public. Hence, there is no way to determine whether the government’s spending is keeping up with its own strategic planning. Instead government officials announce sales when it suits them. In 2018, the president even said he would “surprise’’ citizens and soldiers with a new arms purchase.
Croatian non-transparency also benefits from the rhetoric of an arms race. As a NATO member, Croatia’s finance and procurement transparency level is higher than Serbia’s. Up to a point. To reach NATO’s spending threshold, for example, Croatia pulled a bookkeeping trick by including war veteran pensions in its military expenditure. For the government in Zagreb, anti-Serbian rhetoric also helped suppress debate over its latest fighter jet purchase on supposed national security grounds. Throughout 2020, the Croatian public was kept out of loop as the government negotiated with potential bidders, raising suspicions about the competence of the Croatian negotiators. When the deal to purchase Rafale jets from France was announced, local media raised questions about the sudden jump in price and asked whether Croatia has the logistical capabilities to make effective use of these jets. The government hopes that tough talk toward Serbia can ensure these awkward questions will be overlooked.
The Dangers of Domestic Politics
To date, the arms race narrative has worked well for leaders in both Zagreb and Belgrade. When sensationalist reporting about arms sales is combined with military exercises and moves like reintroducing conscription, it triggers escalating rhetoric on all sides. Political leaders and the media are all too proficient in stirring the tensions and scoring populist points in order to avoid accountability for their own records. Inflammatory nationalist rhetoric is a tried and tested recipe in the region for mobilizing voters and divertubg attention from corruption and economic problems.
Not suprisingly, the “arms race” narrative has typically peaked during pre-election periods. Both Serbia and Croatia had parliamentary elections in 2016, the year the narrative first took hold. Ahead of the 2017 presidential elections in Serbia, front pages were full of reports about the arrival of MIG-29 jets from Russia. Headlines announced that “Putin will defend Serbia with weaponry” and “The Serbian Army will roar when the new MIGs arrive.”
A return to the armed hostilities of the 1990s is highly unlikely, but the current process is still alarming. It is dangerous because it further poisons the already distrustful relationships between regional states. Moreover, it perpetuates the poor state of local governance. So long as spitting in the direction of your neighbors is a more appealing option than discussing policy, the region will be plagued by economic problems and poor public services. War is unlikely, but bullets do not have to be fired for the damage to be inflicted.
Serbia and Croatia have every right to modernize their outdated arsenals, particularly in light of technological transformation that is changing the global security landscape. However, they should do it in less toxic fashion. Perhaps in time politicians in both countries will come to perceive how hawkish rhetoric has actually undermined their international prestige. Or perhaps a new generation of more mature leaders will eventually emerge.
When this happens, both capitals should begin reducing tensions through consultations and confidence-building measures. In doing so, they can rely on the extant regional arms control regime, emboided by Article IV of Annex 1B of the Dayton Peace Agreement. They can also develop a billateral system of consultations between their military staffs to reduce security anxieties. More importantly, they can abandon the rhetoric of an arms race. Defense and national security should be left out of domestic politics in the Balkans where historical wounds have been slow to heal.
Vuk Vuksanovic is a senior researcher at the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy and an associate of LSE IDEAS, a foreign policy think tank at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He received his Ph.D. in international relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science. He has published widely on modern foreign and security policy issues.
Marija Ignjatijevic is a researcher at the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy. Her field of expertise covers defense policy, international military cooperation, parliamentary oversight of the armed forces, and the violent extremism in the Western Balkans. This piece is derived from the analysis they co-authored for the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy.