Serbia’s Arms Deals Show It’s Tilting Away From Russia and Toward China

Belgrade’s purchase of FK-3 air defense systems from Beijing marks a shift in Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic’s diplomatic and defense policy.

By , 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.
Serbian Army soldiers fire artillery on the eve of Serbia's Statehood Day in Belgrade on Feb. 14.
Serbian Army soldiers fire artillery on the eve of Serbia's Statehood Day in Belgrade on Feb. 14.
Serbian Army soldiers fire artillery on the eve of Serbia's Statehood Day in Belgrade on Feb. 14. ANDREJ ISAKOVIC/AFP via Getty Images

While the eyes of the world focused on Russia and its invasion of Ukraine, a major military transaction took place between Serbia and China. On April 9, six People’s Liberation Army Air Force Y-20 transport planes landed at Belgrade Nikola Tesla Airport, delivering a Chinese FK-3 air defense surface-to-air missile system to the Serbian army.

The deal was signed in 2019 and publicly announced a year later. In March, the Serbian military formed a new unit tasked with taking the delivery of the FK-3 system. The timing of this transaction is striking given the war in Ukraine. For Beijing, this is part of its well-known ambition to enter European defense markets via Serbia. For Belgrade, the deal is founded on the need to modernize its outdated defense systems, the foreign-policy imperative of balancing external great powers, and the desire of its leadership to gain domestic support.

China has had the ambition of establishing defense industry cooperation with Europe for decades, an endeavor obstructed by the European arms embargo imposed on China in response to China’s suppression of the Tiananmen protests. (This embargo is still in place, even though individual European countries are using the loophole of dual-use technology to do business with China.) Serbia as a European Union membership candidate is a useful test subject for Beijing as it seeks ways to enter the European defense market.

While the eyes of the world focused on Russia and its invasion of Ukraine, a major military transaction took place between Serbia and China. On April 9, six People’s Liberation Army Air Force Y-20 transport planes landed at Belgrade Nikola Tesla Airport, delivering a Chinese FK-3 air defense surface-to-air missile system to the Serbian army.

The deal was signed in 2019 and publicly announced a year later. In March, the Serbian military formed a new unit tasked with taking the delivery of the FK-3 system. The timing of this transaction is striking given the war in Ukraine. For Beijing, this is part of its well-known ambition to enter European defense markets via Serbia. For Belgrade, the deal is founded on the need to modernize its outdated defense systems, the foreign-policy imperative of balancing external great powers, and the desire of its leadership to gain domestic support.

China has had the ambition of establishing defense industry cooperation with Europe for decades, an endeavor obstructed by the European arms embargo imposed on China in response to China’s suppression of the Tiananmen protests. (This embargo is still in place, even though individual European countries are using the loophole of dual-use technology to do business with China.) Serbia as a European Union membership candidate is a useful test subject for Beijing as it seeks ways to enter the European defense market.

For the past two years, Serbia has been replacing Russia with China as its primary partner in the East.

This procurement is Europe’s first known purchase of the FK-3 system. Similarly, in 2020, China’s shipment of CH-92A drones to Serbia was its first export of military aviation equipment into Europe. In March 2021, Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe went on a regional tour in Southeastern Europe, visiting Serbia, Hungary, North Macedonia, and Greece, all important countries for China as it seeks to connect to Europe.

Greece is a maritime platform connecting Europe with the Middle East and North Africa. Farther north is North Macedonia, a conduit for land traffic as it borders several Balkan countries, followed by Serbia—a country connecting the Balkans with Central Europe via Hungary. All of these countries, except Serbia, are members of NATO while Greece and Hungary are also members of the EU. The visit showed China’s ambition to win other defense markets in the Serbian neighborhood, and the delivery of the FK-3 system is part of this enterprise.


For Serbia, acquiring the Chinese air defense system is part of its efforts to modernize its outdated military hardware—much of which originated in the days of the former Yugoslavia. A large part of its arsenal dates back to the days of the large state-owned military industry of communist Yugoslavia, which was in part based on Soviet standards. For a moment, this created a fighting force that successfully deterred NATO from a ground invasion of Yugoslavia during the Kosovo War. By then, it was not enough to wage technologically advanced wars of the 21st century. Logically, technology has advanced even more since then.

Following the aphorism that generals always fight the last war, control over Serbian airspace has always been at the center of Serbian defense planning. The previous two times Serbia was involved in a great-power conflict, it faced superior air power, including the Nazi bombing of Belgrade in 1941 and NATO intervention in Kosovo in 1999, when Belgrade and other major cities were also bombed. The need to provide air defense for the capital and other urban centers helps incentivize defense modernization. Within that process and driven by both historical experiences and technological transformations, the Serbian military is focused on any weapons system that flies or shoots down things that fly.

Weapons procurement is also part of Serbia’s well-established pattern of diversifying its defense partnerships and playing global and regional powers against one another. The military hardware available to Serbia testifies to that fact. In 2019, Serbia received from Russia and Belarus MiG-29 fighter jets, but as most of these jets are about to become obsolete, they may be replaced by French Rafale jets. Beyond that, Serbia purchased Mistral missiles from France, an infrared man-portable air-defense system, and a rapid-fire Pantsir-S1 anti-aircraft missile system from Russia. In addition to getting Chinese drones, Serbia is in talks of getting Turkey’s Bayraktar TB2 drones motivated by the drones’ performance in Nagorno-Karabakh, Ethiopia, and Ukraine.

By getting weapons systems from powers like China, the Serbian government hopes to increase its bargaining power with the West. Russia also factors in. Namely, for the past two years, Serbia has been replacing Russia with China as its primary partner in the East. Indeed, in 2020 when the purchase of the FK-3 system was announced, Russian media articles expressed anger at Serbia for acquiring the Chinese system instead of the Russian-made S-300 missile system.

While the Russians have developed more advanced missile defense systems since then—like the S-400 purchased by NATO member Turkey and the recently inaugurated S-500—the original S-300 had a mythical status in Serbia, as there is a belief that NATO would not have intervened in 1999 if Serbia had then had this system at its disposal. The FK-3 represents a new wave of Chinese missile technology, and the fact that Serbia decided to go for the Chinese system instead of the Russian one says something.

In Serbia, being perceived by the public as strengthening the army gets you domestic mileage.

With all eyes directed at Russia, Serbia and China believe they have more breathing space to develop bilateral ties. The ongoing war in Ukraine is already forcing Serbia to scale back on some of its Russia ties. After voting in favor of suspending Russia’s membership in the U.N. Human Rights Council, Serbia got an exemption from the EU’s sanctions against Russian oil companies that would have prevented Serbia from importing crude oil, as Serbia’s national oil and gas industry is majority-owned by Russia’s Gazprom Neft.

Although Europe obviously has leverage over Serbia, it is true that Beijing can also fill a lot of empty space that will be generated by Belgrade distancing itself from Moscow, as Serbian political scientist Stefan Vladisavljev writes. The heat attracted by security collaboration with Russia and Moscow’s mixed military performance in Ukraine might propel Serbia to embrace Chinese military hardware even more.

Although Serbian-Russian ties are usually described as an alliance of Slavic and Orthodox nations, this is an opportunistic partnership that is much more dependent on the need for geopolitical leverage than historical affinities. While it remains unclear whether Vucic will join EU sanctions against Russia to avoid angering voters sympathetic to Russia, his survival instinct certainly tells him that he needs to keep a low profile on Russia, making China all the more valuable.


Ultimately, domestic politics informs Serbia’s foreign and security policy. In Serbia, the military remains among the most trusted national institutions, with a 65 percent approval rate. Therefore, being perceived by the public as strengthening the army gets you domestic mileage. In that regard, the ruling Serbian regime led by Vucic, triggered by the war in Ukraine, shifted the electoral narrative away from economic performance toward the idea that Serbia needs a strong, experienced leader to keep the country safe in times of global insecurity, as exemplified by the electoral slogan: “Peace. Stability. Vucic.”

Indeed, during the military exercise “Shield 2022,” where the public could see (among other hardware) the FK-3 system and Chinese CH-92A drones, Vucic said: “I don’t care about Western or Eastern embassies. I don’t care about Americans, Russians, Europeans, or anyone else. I will make decisions in accordance with the interests of the Republic of Serbia.” A government that acquires advanced weapons and frames itself as a guarantor of the country’s security in troubled times boosts the regime’s standing in the post-electoral period.

With all of that in mind, the return of war to the Balkans is highly unlikely. Serbia is encircled by NATO members. Kosovo has a presence of NATO troops in the form of the peacekeeping Kosovo Force. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the EU’s peacekeeping mission, Operation Althea, has been beefed up in response to the war in Ukraine. Despite all of the disagreements, Serbia is a member of NATO’s Partnership for Peace program. The country practices an Individual Partnership Action Plan, the highest level of cooperation a nonmember state can have with NATO.

Serbian leaders might be able to bide for time by telling the West, “We are slowly distancing from Russia, so give us a break on China.” It’s a gambit that might pay off in the short term but not in the long term, as the Chinese-American rivalry will reach Serbia eventually, making the fallout of the Ukraine war look like a picnic for Belgrade.

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.

  Twitter: @v_vuksanovic

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a commission on military-technical cooperation with foreign states in 2017.
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a commission on military-technical cooperation with foreign states in 2017.

What’s the Harm in Talking to Russia? A Lot, Actually.

Diplomacy is neither intrinsically moral nor always strategically wise.

Officers with the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) wait outside an apartment in Kharkiv oblast, Ukraine.
Officers with the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) wait outside an apartment in Kharkiv oblast, Ukraine.

Ukraine Has a Secret Resistance Operating Behind Russian Lines

Modern-day Ukrainian partisans are quietly working to undermine the occupation.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron wave as they visit the landmark Brandenburg Gate illuminated in the colors of the Ukrainian flag in Berlin on May 9, 2022.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron wave as they visit the landmark Brandenburg Gate illuminated in the colors of the Ukrainian flag in Berlin on May 9, 2022.

The Franco-German Motor Is on Fire

The war in Ukraine has turned Europe’s most powerful countries against each other like hardly ever before.

U.S. President Joe Biden holds a semiconductor during his remarks before signing an executive order on the economy in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.
U.S. President Joe Biden holds a semiconductor during his remarks before signing an executive order on the economy in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.

How the U.S.-Chinese Technology War Is Changing the World

Washington’s crackdown on technology access is creating a new kind of global conflict.