Strong reactions have sparked from Serbia after Russian-state news outlet RIA Novosti released a video claiming to show Serbian volunteers training and preparing to fight in the Ukrainian Oblast of Zaporizhzhia, with their trainers reportedly being mercenaries under Russian-aligned Wagner PMC (Private Military Company) Group. The same RIA report claimed volunteers from Macedonia and Poland, among other countries, were also coming to volunteer in this unit. This comes as well after Wagner Group and their associated online channels reportedly released Serbian-language videos that encourage recruitment for the Russo-Ukrainian War. Wagner has been long used as a subversive arm of the Russian state, used for plausible deniability for accusations against Russia. Operating across several regions, they have seen extensive deployment in Syria and Central/West Africa for primarily counter-terrorism operations and to guard resource extraction sites, most often Russian ones. For years, despite training with Russian Armed Forces, their existence was denied until they recently started playing a larger role in the war. In an earlier article this week this outlet reported on Wagner’s recent change of face as they have now registered as a public stock company in Russia.
#Russian-state news outlet RIA Novosti released a video claiming to show #Serbian volunteers training to be mercenaries under Russian-aligned #Wagner PMC (Private Military Company) Group, shown preparing to fight in the #Ukrainian Oblast of #Zaporizhzhia. pic.twitter.com/nppK0QVqXz
— OurWarsToday (@ourwarstoday) January 21, 2023
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic reacted with outrage, saying, “Why do you, from Wagner, call anyone from Serbia when you know that it is against our rules?” He also clarified Serbia is neutral in the war, and that he had not spoken to Putin for purportedly “many months”. In the past, Serbian courts have convicted more than two dozen people for taking part in “fighting on foreign battlefronts” reports BBC. It is illegal for Serbians to fight in conflicts abroad. Vucic notably also stated, “For us, Crimea is Ukraine, Donbas is Ukraine, and it will remain so.”
BBC reports on Thursday, a Belgrade-based lawyer and anti-war groups filed criminal complaints against the Russian ambassador as well as the head of Serbia’s state security and information agency (BIA) for allegedly recruiting Serbians for the Wagner group. Wagner denied on Friday these claims, with founder Yevgeny Prigozhin saying “I do not recruit Serbs” and claiming to have never heard of either Russia’s ambassador to Serbia, Alexander Botsan-Kharchenko, or Aleksandar Vulin, head of Serbia’s state Security and Information Agency, who were named in the criminal complaints by activists.
In Belgrade, where provocative murals are reportedly very common, Wagner death’s head emblem appeared on a city-center wall last week. It was signed by the People’s Patrols, an extreme right-wing organization which has previously staged sparsely attended pro-Russia rallies. However, mainstream political parties in Serbia have not shown support for the Russian invasion, with Serbia voting in favor of resolutions at the U.N that have condemned Russian aggression, despite historically close relations between the two Slavic nations. Likely this change in relationship to Russia is connected to when Putin referred to Kosovo’s declaration of independence as justification for recognizing independence of separatist states in Eastern Ukraine.
Vucic has warned of “very difficult” conversations to be had with EU and U.S special envoys, announcing that he will address Serbians over the weekend to tell them “what is required and expected from Serbia regarding Kosovo and sanctions against Russia.” Although he has said the same in the past while being non-committal, he reiterated the idea that Serbia’s trajectory is Western, saying to Bloomberg News that “I know that EU is our path… There are no other paths.”