RUMA, Serbia -- The first-ever joint Serbian-Russian military exercises have been held at the Nikinci military testing ground outside Belgrade. Although local media were granted access to the event as it got started, Serbian journalists scrambled for information in the run-up to the exercise.
As late as November 13, the day before the one-day exercise, the Serbian military was refusing to comment on it at all.
The Belgrade daily "Danas" reported that "certain structures" within the Serbian military were keeping the drill quiet because "it could cause negative reactions from Western countries, considering the Ukrainian crisis and the current conflict between the EU and Russia."
Ljubodrag Stojadinovic, a former Yugoslav army officer and a military analyst in Belgrade, says the exercise represents a fluctuation in Belgrade's policy of wending between traditional ally Russia and the West. "An eastern wind is blowing around here at the moment," he tells RFE/RL's Balkan Service. "And our leadership, like a windmill, is turning us toward the east. They call it 'pragmatic politics.'"
A Serbian military source told RFE/RL that the exercise, called SREM-2014, stemmed from a 2010 military-cooperation agreement between Serbia and Russia and had nothing to do with the situation in Ukraine.
Serbian Defense Minister Bratislav Gasic also played the event down, saying "we have thousands of exercises all the time" and "there is nothing special here that could be considered a sensation."
In contrast, Russian state media provided lavish and dramatic coverage in the days before the exercise.
On November 10, the website of RT (formerly Russia Today) posted a story on the drill, complete with a video showing Russian armored personnel carriers being airdropped into the testing ground from an Ilyushin Il-76 cargo plane. The video not only was shot from inside the Il-76 and from a camera on the ground, but also from a camera mounted on one of the armored vehicles "that captured its magnificent landing," according to the RT story.
Information about the exercise, which was described as "antiterrorism training," initially came only from Russia's state-run TASS news agency and other Russian media. They reported that paratroops and combat equipment from Russia's Tula region would participate in the exercise.
'A Message Of Power'
Serbia is a traditional ally of Russia's but has been granted European Union candidate status and is actively seeking EU membership. Serbia has also applied for NATO's Partnership for Peace program.
Under the 2010 agreement, Russia and Serbia opened a joint center in the southern town of Nis, about 100 kilometers from the border with Kosovo, with the stated purpose of responding to natural disasters.
Stevan Mirkovic, a retired general of the Yugoslav National Army and a former commander of the 63rd Paratroop Brigade in Nis, says the exercise is part of a trend toward closer relations between the Serbian military and Moscow. "Since the creation of the emergency center in Nis and after the recent military parade in Belgrade [attended by Russian President Vladimir Putin], a lot of things have changed when it comes to the military," he says. "The army is not exclusively facing West right now."
Belgrade military analyst Stojadinovic adds that with the exercises Moscow is trying to let the West know it is a force to be reckoned with. "Moscow's political message is that it has enough power to be present wherever Russia's interests are and that it has enough friends to cooperate with," he says. "Such exercises, like any kind of military move, contain a message of power."
Robert Coalson contributed to this report from Prague