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 will help Serbia resist Russia’s “malign influence” and “manipulation”.

In the first ever visit of a UK Defence Secretary to the country, Mr Wallace met with Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić and Minister of Defence Nebojša Stefanović.

Speaking to the Telegraph in Belgrade the Defence Secretary 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. 

He said it “doesn’t bother” Britain that Serbia also has 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.”

An Mi-17 troop transporter helicopter operates during a multinational exercise in southern Serbia which has included around 70 British soldiers. June 17, 2021.

Credit: MC Odbrana

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 as Foreign Secretary, but no British Prime Minister has been to the country since Mrs Thatcher in the 1980s.)

A senior Serbian army officer told the Telegraph the agreement with Britain was the chance to “reset” the recently troubled relationship.

The Serbian and British Defence Ministers, accompanied by military personnel, lay wreaths to pay their respects to Serbian, British and Commonwealth forces who lost their lives fighting the Nazis in the Second World War. June 17, 2021.

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, although it never became a full member. 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.

Serbian troops conduct riot control training as part of a multinational exercise. June 17, 2021.

Credit:
Darimir Banda/
MC Odbrana

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. It’s a country that warrants our attention and support, because we want it to join us at the top table.

President Vučić wants “to continue our defence engagement and cooperation. He wanted 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.

Mr Wallace, seen alighting from an EC-145 helicopter, intends to broaden and deepen the network of British defence engagements globally. June 17, 2021.

The Defence Secretary was speaking as around 70 British troops were participating in Exercise Platinum Wolf, a Serbia-hosted multinational exercise of 11 countries to which the UK is this year’s largest contributor.

Serbia’s Minister of Defence, Nebojša 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.”

Serbian armoured vehicles taking part in the multinational exercise. The lead vehicle has metal 'wings' that can be deployed in riot control situations. June 17, 2021.

Credit: MC Odbrana

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 militarily 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!”

The SOE memorial unveiled by Ben Wallace was made by metalsmiths from 4th Armoured Close Support Battalion of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers with the support of 22nd Engineer Regiment. June 17, 2021.

Credit:
Milos Miskov

The Pranjani Memorial – Remembering the British airfield built under the Nazis’ noses 

While in Serbia the Defence Secretary opened a memorial to the successful evacuation, from behind enemy lines in what was then Nazi occupied Yugoslavia, of undercover fighters from the clandestine Special Operations Executive (SOE) and Allied Airmen.

Alongside local troops and villagers, British personnel directed the construction of an airfield near the village of Pranjani, under the Nazis’ noses. 

Between May 29 and 31, 1944, 57 members of Force 133 of the SOE along with 51 airmen, 12 Polish escapees, one captured German officer and two civilians were successfully evacuated to Bari, Italy.

Local villagers constructed the airstrip under the supervision of two British Royal Engineers: Major Archie Jack and Captain Erik Greenwood.

The descriptive plaque, to accompany the SOE memorial at Pranjani, Serbia. June 17, 2021.

Credit:
Milos Miskov

When the first extraction was attempted the airstrip was only 550m long, 1,000m short of the required length. The first aircraft, carrying a full load of 16 passengers, failed to take off before it reached the end of the airstrip and plunged into the valley below. It managed to claw sufficient speed and height to avoid crashing into the hillside opposite.

All later aircraft took off carrying only half loads of passengers. 

At the time this was the largest evacuation of allied personnel from behind enemy lines in occupied Europe and was the inspiration for subsequent escapes.

In total the airfield was used to evacuate 2,400 Allied Airmen, 11,000 wounded Partisans and 400 wounded civilians between May 1944 and June 1945.