By Associated Press
February 25, 2019

(BELGRADE, Serbia) — Serbia took delivery of four Russian-made MiG-29 fighter jets from Belarus on Monday, the defense ministry said, part of an arms purchase that could heighten tensions in the Balkans and increase Moscow’s influence in the region.

Serbian Defense Minister Aleksandar Vulin attended the ceremony at an air force base in Belarus, saying that with the delivery “our air force has never been stronger in decades.”

Serbia has recently received six MiG-29 jets from Russia, which has also promised the delivery of 60 armored vehicles, air defense systems and battle and transport helicopters.

Serbia, a Russian ally, was at war with neighbors Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s during the bloody breakup of the former Yugoslavia. Its military, especially the air force, was depleted in 1999 during a NATO air war that stopped a bloody crackdown against Kosovo Albanian separatists.

Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, which hasn’t been recognized by Belgrade.

Vulin said in a statement that with Monday’s delivery of the four secondhand jets that need refurbishing, Serbia will have 14 operational MiG-29s.

“The sky over Serbia will be safe, free and independent,” said Vulin, a staunchly pro-Russian politician.

Serbia faces a mini arms race with NATO-member Croatia, which has recently failed to purchase 12 used F-16 fighter aircraft from Israel after a deal that went wrong after opposition from Washington.

Serbia formally wants to join the European Union, but under political and propaganda pressure from Moscow, Belgrade has steadily slid toward the Kremlin and its goal of trying to keep the countries in the region out of NATO.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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