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The Defence Secretary has said Britain wants Serbia to be “at the top table”, as he signed a landmark agreement to counter Russian meddling.
Ben Wallace said it was in the UK’s security interest to be “engaged in post-Yugoslavia development”, adding Britain would help Serbia resist Russia's “malign influence” and “manipulation”.
In the first ever visit of a British defence secretary to the country, Mr Wallace met with Aleksandar Vučić, the Serbian president, and Nebojša Stefanović, the minister of defence.
Speaking to The Telegraph in Belgrade, he said Serbia “warrants our attention and support because we want it to join us at the top table”.
“It's in our interest that we help the resilience of countries like Serbia, from malign activity and influence.
“In places where we see activity by other nations, weakening countries or undermining them or trying to manipulate them, then, of course, it's in our interest to challenge that [and] support those countries.
Not telling Serbia what to do
He said it “doesn't bother” to Britain that Serbia also had friendly relationships with Russia as “Serbia is militarily neutral”.
“We're not in the Russia game of taking a country for granted and trying to make it choose. We're not evangelically telling [Serbia] what to do.
"We want the best security for the people of Serbia [but] we still need burden sharing and some partners will be less traditional than you think, including Serbia."
As co-signatory to the agreement, Mr Stefanović said the new defence arrangement represents the “shared history from the two world wars where we were the closest of allies”.
It was the “crown” on a rekindled relationship with Britain, he said, adding “we hope to see your Prime Minister here soon”. Boris Johnson visited during his time as Foreign Secretary, but no British Prime Minister has been to the country since Mrs Thatcher in the 1980s.
Reset the relationship
A senior Serbian army officer told The Telegraph the agreement with Britain was the chance to “reset” the recently troubled relationship.
Britain and Serbia were allies for much of the early part of the last century.
Post-war, Yugoslavia, of which Serbia was a part, embraced communism and turned to the Soviet Union for support. Relations hit their lowest point in 1999 when British forces joined Nato allies in a bombing campaign to eject Serbian troops from Kosovo, a semi-autonomous region in the south of the country.
Kosovo declared independence in 2008 and is recognised by Britain, the US and many other countries. However, Serbia has sizeable global support, including from Russia, in opposing an independent Kosovo.
The issue is the main obstacle to Serbia’s accession to the EU and, possibly, Nato, although the country is in official talks, and has warm relations with both organisations.
The Defence Secretary sees an expanded and constantly engaged British military and diplomatic presence as the embodiment of “Global Britain” and eyes a “growing partnership” with Serbia.
“Serbia has transitioned massively in the last 20 years,” he told The Telegraph, “embracing an open liberal democracy.
“The strength that we all need to protect our values is going to be through alliances. If you're not in the room you can't build those alliances.
“[Serbia] has reformed corruption and organised crime. It is taking steps."
President Vučić wanted “to continue our defence engagement and cooperation," Mr Wallace said. "He wants to explore where we could do more. None of that is an issue for us, we'd like to do that, we want to do that.”
The Defence Secretary was speaking as around 70 British troops have been taking in Operation Platinum Wolf, a Serbia-hosted multinational exercise of 11 countries to which the UK is this year’s largest contributor.
Best of East and West
Mr Stefanović said the addition of soldiers from 2 Rifles, 3 Scots and reservists of 8 Rifles to the exercise was a “very good addition to our knowledge”.
“We learn from others who are better than us or have different tactics, different ways of doing things.”
Referring to the Serbian military police detachment currently serving with British forces in Cyprus, Mr Stefanović said “we want to be of help. We want to be a partner and you can rely on Serbian soldiers.”
“The world is changing, threats are changing, so you have to adapt.”
As well as exercising with British troops at home the Serbian army is also in Belarus, training alongside Russian forces. It makes for an interesting military-strategic position.
“Serbia is militarily neutral so we don't have to prefer to train with either [Russia or the West],” Mr Stefanović said.
“We can choose both, and that's our advantage because I think that we get best from East and the West in training capabilities in learning about the tactics, and I think that's also good for the army to know what all armies are thinking about what are their intentions, their ideas, how they do it.
“So, as a military neutral country, we want to work with everyone in order to get our army as professional as possible.”
Sergeant Dan Hayes of 2 Rifles said training with the Serbian army had been very good. “The blokes have been loving it,” he told The Telegraph. "This defence engagement stuff is mega."