- Associated Press - Thursday, December 22, 2016

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) - Russia will supply Serbia with fighter jets, tanks and combat vehicles, a move that potentially strengthens Moscow’s influence in the Balkans.

The six MiG-29 fighter jets, 30 T-72 tanks and 30 combat vehicles come from Russia’s weapons reserves. The jets will need immediate overhaul after delivery in March, which will cost between 180-230 million euros (between $188-240 million.)

Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, who secured the deal during his visit to Russia on Wednesday, said the Russian “donation” will “dramatically” boost his country’s defense capability. Most of Serbia’s neighbors are NATO members.

Vucic said Serbia will remain militarily neutral despite the new weaponry from Russia.

“The sky over Serbia will be absolutely safe,” Vucic said. “That means we will have an advantage over those who would perhaps think of threatening Serbia in the future. We are not threatening anyone.”

Although formally seeking European Union membership, Serbia has been sliding toward traditional Slavic ally Russia.

The arms deal comes amid growing tensions between Serbia and neighboring Croatia, a NATO and EU member, and intensified Russian efforts to prevent the Balkans aligning further with the West.

Many in Serbia are hostile toward NATO because of its bombing of the country in 1999 over a bloody government crackdown against Kosovo Albanian separatists. Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, something both Serbia and Russia reject.

Serbia’s labor minister Aleksandar Vulin said the arms deal with Russia is “historic.”

“Since the NATO aggression, we were never safer,” Vulin said. “Now we will be able to defend our territories.”

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