BELGRADE, Serbia — Russian President Vladimir Putin has promised to sign off on a delivery of fighter jets, battle tanks and armored vehicles to Serbia, the Balkan country's defense minister said Tuesday, in what could worsen tensions with neighboring states and trigger an arms race in the war-weary region.
Defence Minister Zoran Djordjevic said that Putin agreed to approve the delivery during a visit by Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic to Moscow on Monday. He said six MiG-29 fighter jets, 30 T-72 tanks and 30 BRDM-2 armored vehicles will be delivered soon.
"The president of the Russian Federation said he will sign that decree, and when it's signed, we will act accordingly," Djordjevic said. "We are waiting for the process to be finalized in Russia and see how (the equipment) will be delivered to Serbia."
The jets would have to fly over NATO-member countries before reaching Serbia. Or they would have to be taken apart and flown in transport planes, if the neighboring countries approve.
Djordjevic said the jets, tanks and fighting vehicles — donated from Russian arms reserves for free — will be "fully modernized and refurbished" in Serbia by Russian technicians for an undisclosed sum. It is estimated that the overhaul of the MiGs alone would cost Serbia some €200 million (U.S. $217 million.)
Djordjevic said earlier that Serbia is also interested in buying a Russian air defense system as well as opening a repair center for Russian MIL helicopters, which, analysts believe, would be tantamount to opening a Russian military base on its territory.
Serbia formally has been on the path to join the European Union, but under political and propaganda pressure from Moscow has steadily slid toward the Kremlin and its goal of keeping the countries in the Balkan region out of NATO and other Western integrations.
EU officials have voiced their alarm over increasing Russian influence in the western Balkans, which saw a bloody civil war in the 1990s.
Meanwhile, Serbia's archrival and NATO member Croatia is shopping for a new fighter to replace the nation's aging MiG-21s.
The two leading contenders for the planned contract reportedly include American Lockheed Martin's F-16 and Swedish Saab's JAS-39 Gripen.