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The UK in Serbia: Signs of a new regional strategy?

Ongoing debate surrounding the United Kingdom’s relations with the Balkans has naturally been dominated by its withdrawal from the European Union. Despite this, a recent charm offensive in Serbia may prove to be a turning point for Britain’s wider ambitions in the area.

July 12, 2021 - Niall Gray - Articles and Commentary

Charles, Prince of Wales at the British Embassy in Belgrade. Photo: Milovan Milenkovic flickr.com

Current wisdom suggests that the United Kingdom is now streamlining its relationship with Central and Eastern Europe. Focused on developing a cohesive post-Brexit strategy, London appears to be moving towards a long-term policy in which the region is just one of many concerns. This is exemplified by the Boris Johnson administration’s recent ‘Integrated Review’, which placed the “Indo-Pacific” at the heart of an ambitious ‘Global Britain’ strategy. It is interesting to note that the 114-page document directly mentioned China, the UK’s main rising adversary, almost twice as many times as traditional rival Russia. Such ambitions have seemingly left little room for the region as a whole. Whilst Britain will likely remain a key partner in NATO missions in the Baltic states and Ukraine, it is perhaps natural that the state would look to rebalance its global commitments following its withdrawal from the European Union.

In light of this, a recent upsurge in British government activity related to Serbia will come as a surprise to many across the region and beyond. This was most publicly seen in relation to Defence Secretary Ben Wallace’s visit to the country in mid-June. The engagement marked the first ever visit of a British defence minister to the nation and struck a decidedly independent tone not seen for a long time. Indeed, the visit almost seemed to hark back to the days of London’s extensive Balkan operations in the early to mid-20th century. This sentiment was even discussed by Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, who expressed hopes that the visit would see relations between Belgrade and London eventually reach the “level of true partnership that we had as allies in both world wars”. Despite such rhetoric, could these recent events reveal anything about an emerging UK strategy for the region? A closer look at the visit and its relation to wider trends may reveal more about British priorities than meets the eye.

Perhaps the most noteworthy part of Wallace’s visit was his attendance at joint military exercises. Whilst much of the agenda was taken up by diplomatic niceties, the defence minister made a prominent appearance at the recent ‘Platinum Wolf’ drills near the border town of Bujanovac. This engagement allowed the politician to discuss Britain’s role in aiding Yugoslav partisans during World War II and even use such events as a means of describing the country’s intentions today. Britain appeared to play a key part in these shared drills, as the nation represented the largest foreign force even when compared to France and the United States.

Not far from Bujanovac, the UK also recently confirmed its ongoing commitment to a peacekeeping role in Kosovo. The timing of this announcement is naturally hard to ignore, with London seeming eager to pursue wider regional engagement. This was confirmed by the defence secretary himself, who stressed that “The extension of our commitment to KFOR underlines our unwavering commitment to the Western Balkans region, where NATO has helped to bring stability for over two decades”. At the same time, high-level talks were also held in nearby Montenegro upon the arrival of the Royal Navy’s ‘Carrier Strike Group’ to the port of Bar. These events have exposed what appear to be the most crucial elements in Britain’s new regional strategy. Whilst hopes have been expressed regarding economic ties, the real focus seems to lie in promoting hard power as a NATO leader. The question, however, is what is the wider goal of this approach?

Of course, the ‘Russia factor’ is almost predictably a key part of the UK’s new regional ambitions. Still keen to charge those supposedly involved in the Salisbury poisonings, London now appears eager to challenge Moscow in areas often viewed as its ‘backyard’. Relations between Serbia and Russia go well beyond simple expressions of ‘Slavic brotherhood’, with President Vučić even recently approving the production of the Sputnik V vaccine on the country’s territory. This perception of renewed ‘competition’ was all but confirmed by the British defence secretary, who declared during an address that “there is no doubt that it is in Serbia’s interest to have partners on various sides”.

Back home in the UK, this rather interesting word choice subsequently gave way to frenzied speculation over whether more than rhetoric was exchanged in the meeting rooms of Belgrade. For example, a June 18th report from The Telegraph stated that a “landmark agreement to counter Russian meddling” was signed during Wallace’s visit. Whilst a treaty on military cooperation was indeed agreed, its details have strangely remained a topic of debate. The agreement’s anti-Russian slant was perhaps confirmed by the politician himself, who told the newspaper whilst in Serbia that “we’re not in the Russian game of taking a country for granted and trying to make it choose. We’re not evangelically telling [Serbia] what to do”. Despite this, any connections made with the Kremlin were strenuously denied only days later by the British embassy in a written statement to Radio Free Europe. This diplomatic mix-up suggests that London may be looking to play the long game when it comes to renewed regional influence.

Nevertheless, this breakthrough visit to Serbia does appear to have played a role in sending a message to the Kremlin. For instance, Moscow proved especially eager to make a statement during a recent bilateral showdown over right of passage through Crimean waters. According to the Russian Navy, warning shots and even bombs were used to discourage British warship HMS Defender from passing through the hotly disputed zone. If these claims are true, the events would represent the first instance of Moscow admitting to such actions since the end of the Cold War. This take on the story was naturally deemed “predictably inaccurate” in London, with the disputed event representing the sharp edge of a growing bilateral conflict fought just as much through diplomatic channels.

For an ‘intermediary’ state such as Serbia, therefore, the UK’s refocused presence in Central and Eastern Europe may bring various benefits. Certainly, Belgrade’s Defence Minister Nebojša Stefanović appeared especially enthusiastic as he told his UK counterpart that “we hope to see your Prime Minister here soon”. The next few weeks and months could subsequently prove interesting as to whether ‘Global Britain’ makes similar appearances across the wider region.

Niall Gray is a recent graduate of the University of Glasgow in Central and East European, Russian and Eurasian Studies.

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