Serbia slams Ukraine's claim its soldiers are helping Russian invasion

Although Serbia bans its citizens from fighting in conflicts abroad – a crime punishable by long prison terms – some have fought in Ukraine in the past, including in Russia's Wagner mercenaries.

 PRO-RUSSIAN armored convoy travels outside the separatist-controlled town of Volnovakha in Ukraine’s Donetsk region on Saturday. (photo credit: Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)
PRO-RUSSIAN armored convoy travels outside the separatist-controlled town of Volnovakha in Ukraine’s Donetsk region on Saturday.
(photo credit: Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)

Serbia condemned an accusation by Ukraine that its soldiers were being recruited by Russia in order to aid them in their ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

In a statement, Serbian Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Nebojša Stefanović called Ukraine's accusations "downright lies."

“This is dangerous misinformation spread by the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces and we demand that it be withdrawn immediately,“ Stefanović said. 

“The participation of Serbian citizens in armed conflicts abroad is a serious crime punishable by a several years’ prison sentence," he said. "A few days ago, the President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vučić, once again confirmed that everyone who leaves Serbia in order to fight in Ukraine will be severely punished, regardless of whose side they fight on.

"Serbia supports a peaceful solution to this conflict and will not allow its commitment to peace to be called into question in any way.“

Prohibiting Serbian citizens from fighting in armed conflicts outside the country isn't unprecedented, and the matter has been brought up recently in light of thousands of foreign fighters heading to Ukraine to volunteer in resisting the Russian invasion.

 A MURAL of Russian President Vladmir Putin is vandalized – with red spraypaint and the word ‘Murderer’ written above the original text reading ‘Brother’ – in Belgrade, Serbia, March 6.  (credit: Zorana Jevtic/Reuters) A MURAL of Russian President Vladmir Putin is vandalized – with red spraypaint and the word ‘Murderer’ written above the original text reading ‘Brother’ – in Belgrade, Serbia, March 6. (credit: Zorana Jevtic/Reuters)

In the Balkans, both North Macedonia and Kosovo have laws on the books against their citizens joining conflicts abroad. In both cases, these laws were made due to citizens having volunteered in the Syrian civil war, according to Balkan Insight.

In spite of the Serbian law, its citizens have fought in Ukraine before, notably since the conflict in 2014. This was highlighted by social media posts that proved it, which actually helped prosecutors charge them, as noted by Balkan Insight in 2017.

It didn't stop then, either. In February 2018, at least seven Serbian nationals were known by Ukraine to have been fighting in eastern Ukraine as part of the Russian mercenary company Wagner Group. One of them was killed. This was noted at the time by Ukrainian security official Igor Guskov in a TV interview and reported on by Ukrainian media.

Wagner mercenaries are reportedly being deployed in Ukraine by Russian forces in the current conflict as well.

On Sunday, the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ukrainian Defense Ministry (GUR) and the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces claimed in separate statements that in addition to Syrian mercenaries, Russia was training and planning to bring in Libyans and Serbians to aid in their fight with Ukraine.

This, in turn, followed Russian President Vladimir Putin giving the green light for foreign volunteers to come to help Russian forces fight in Ukraine, in particular mentioning about 16,000 volunteers from the Middle East.

"We know many of [these volunteers], they helped in the fight against ISIS during the last 10 years," Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said at a meeting of Russia's Security Council, according to TASS.

"If you see that there are these people who want of their own accord, not for money, to come to help the people living in Donbas, then we need to give them what they want and help them get to the conflict zone," Putin said.

Michael Starr contributed to this report.