All posts by MPolitics

Turkish Casualties Rise in Syria, but Ankara Wary of Confronting Russia

Turkish forces have suffered more casualties in the latest round of fighting in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province. But despite Russia backing Syrian government forces in the ongoing attacks on Turkish forces, Ankara has refrained from confronting Moscow — a sign, analysts suggest, of the considerable economic leverage Russia retains over Turkey.Officials say a Turkish convoy in Idlib was hit Monday in an airstrike that caused several injuries. During the weekend, a Turkish soldier was killed in another attack, bringing the number of deaths to at least 18 since Turkey sent significant reinforcements to counter a Damascus government offensive against Syria’s last rebel enclave.  Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, welcomes Russian President Vladimir Putin, in Istanbul, Jan. 8, 2020.Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, facing growing domestic pressure over the number of casualties in Syria, spoke Friday with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. Erdogan described the talks as productive, but analysts say the latest casualties indicate little was achieved in ensuring the safety of Turkish forces.”Putin just doesn’t keep his promises, but we [Turkey] seem to be beholden to him,” said analyst Atilla Yesilada of New York-based Global Source Partners.Moscow robustly defends the Damascus government offensive against rebels and accuses Ankara of failing to fulfill a commitment to disarm radical groups in Idlib.  Despite Moscow’s defense of Damascus’ increasing number of deadly attacks on Turkish forces, analysts believe Erdogan is avoiding a confrontation with Putin, maintaining that Turkish-Russian relations remain intact.  Experts say Erdogan is well aware of the significant economic clout Moscow possesses.”Russians do have a lot of leverage over Turkey,” said international relations expert Soli Ozel of Istanbul’s Kadir Has University.  “Tomatoes may no longer cross the border,” he added, “along with other fruits and vegetables. Russian charter flights out to Antalya [a Turkish Mediterranean resort] may become rarer or may stop.”Russia is a significant market for Turkish produce, along with Russian tourists being among the most numerous for Turkey’s large tourism industry.  Following Turkey’s 2015 downing of a Russian bomber operating in Syria, Moscow banned Turkish tomato imports and dramatically curtailed Russian tourists as part of significant economic sanctions, eventually forcing Erdogan into apologizing to Putin.  Five thousand tons of Turkish tomatoes are stranded on the Russian border. Officially the Russians cite regulation anomalies, but Ankara sees the delays as Moscow again flexing its economic muscle. Earlier this month, a Turkish ship carrying tomatoes was sent back from Russia.  People walk in central Istanbul’s Istiklal Avenue, the main shopping road of Istanbul, Aug. 22, 2018.Last year’s record numbers of Russian tourists helped to contribute to a historically high number of visitors to Turkey, surging to 45 million in 2019 from 39 million in the previous year.Tourism is a labor-intensive industry, as well as a critical source of foreign currency, vital, analysts say, to support a lira that increasingly is under pressure.The Turkish economy is still struggling to recover from a currency crash of 2018, with sluggish growth and youth unemployment running at around 25%. Analysts suggest Erdogan will be reluctant to risk a new economic war with Moscow.Energy, however, is where Moscow can especially inflict pain on Ankara.”Turkey is engaged in the construction of a Russian nuclear power station due to come on stream in 2023,” said Mehmet Ogutcu, chairman of the London Energy Club. “Turkey is already buying through Russia’s Blue Stream [pipeline] almost 16 bcm [billion cubic meters] of gas. There are two other projects from Russia.  “Turkey wants to reduce its dependence on Russian gas, which is running at 52% because we have experienced Turkey shooting down a Russian plane; this was a cold shower. What if Russia cuts off supply during winter?” asked Ogutcu.  Ankara is taking steps to reduce its dependence on Russia’s energy by seeking alternative gas supplies. Turkey is increasing its capacity to receive and store liquid natural gas. Last year saw record amounts of LNG imported by Turkey, much of it from the United States.  Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, center, attends the opening ceremony of Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline, a key pipeline that will carry natural gas from Azerbaijan’s gas fields to Turkish markets.Rising Russian-Turkish tensions are putting the spotlight on the number and nature of energy deals Ankara agreed to with Moscow. With Turkey paying among the highest gas prices in the world, criticism is growing that the deals greatly favor Russia. At the same time, Ankara has committed to buying gas it doesn’t need.”We don’t need that gas; look at Turkish gas consumption. It’s been declining for three years,” said Yesilada. “We just agreed to get 4 billion new cubic meters per annum plus 6 billion from Tanap [a pipeline from Azerbaijan]. We are suddenly stuck with 10 billion cubic meters of gas at the same time our gas power stations are all going bankrupt due to lack of demand and high gas prices.”In the next two years, several long-term Russian gas contracts are due for renewal. Their renewal is seen as an opportunity for Ankara to rebalance its relationship with Moscow.”I think the Turks are quite aware of the fact that they depend heavily on Russian gas and that it has to be at a manageable level,” said Ogutcu.”There is an asymmetric relationship between Russia and Turkey, that Turkey does whatever Russia wants. But there needs to be a change, a rebalancing of the relationship. The renewing of the contracts will be one step,” he added.

Confirmed Coronavirus Cases Surpasse 200 in Italy

The death toll in Italy from the coronavirus outbreak stands at seven with more than 200 cases confirmed. At least 10 towns in the north are in lockdown mode and the army is ensuring no one enters of leaves them during a quarantine period.Italian authorities are working around the clock putting in place unprecedented measures in an effort to curb the surge in coronavirus cases. In at least six regions in Italy’s industrial north, schools and universities are closed. People have been told to stay away from their offices and remain indoors as much as possible.Theaters and museums have also been closed as have bars and discos. Venice carnival events have been cut short for the first time ever.Tourists are wearing protective masks against coronavirus in Venice, Italy, Feb. 23, 2020. (S. Castelfranco/VOA)Authorities have banned all demonstrations and public gatherings, including sporting events and church services as Italy deals with the biggest outbreak in Europe. The head of Italy’s civil defense department, Andrea Borrelli, said authorities were surprised by how fast the virus has spread. He said a plan is in place to house people who have contracted the virus and for those in quarantine.
Borrelli says thousands of beds are available throughout the national territory and that army barracks and hotels have been made available. He also says extra food and medical supplies will be taken to the towns in lockdown in northern Italy.Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte says residents in affected towns could face weeks in lockdown.In Milan over the weekend, many residents raided supermarkets, leaving empty shelves, fearing they would not be able to go to the shops. The Lombardy region is Italy’s hardest hit region and streets are deserted. Many people have been told to stay home and work from there. Those who venture out have been wearing surgical masks. One vendor outside a Milan railway station said he was selling the masks for $11 each.University students in affected areas were unable to sit for their exams.
This student says she had three exams this week and all of them have been canceled. The student says she does not know when she will be able to take them.According to the student, the Milan mayor said for the moment, colleges will be closed for a week but that this closure could be extended to a fortnight or more.Italians have been told to avoid traveling to affected areas. At the airports, passengers are being checked for symptoms of the virus with heat sensors. Some regional train lines have canceled service, but fast trains between the major cities are still operating normally.

Merkel’s Crisis-Hit CDU Launches Leadership Race

Germany’s center-right CDU said Monday it would choose a new leader at a special congress on April 25, as the crisis-racked party hopes to halt a slide in the polls and end speculation about who could succeed veteran Chancellor Angela Merkel.Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union has been in turmoil after her heir apparent, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, resigned as party leader this month over her supposed failure to stop regional MPs from cooperating with the far right.Speaking after talks with party grandees in Berlin, Kramp-Karrenbauer said they had agreed to hold an extraordinary congress to elect the next leader of the CDU, a party that has dominated politics in Germany for 70 years.The winner is then also expected to be the CDU’s candidate for the chancellery in a general election set for 2021, when Merkel plans to bow out after 14 years at the helm of Europe’s top economy.Kramp-Karrenbauer, widely known as “AKK,” told reporters the leadership vote would send “a very clear signal,” adding: “It answers the question of who will be the CDU’s candidate for the chancellery.”For the first time, AKK also named the four party members expected to throw their hat in the ring, confirming widespread media speculation.They include Merkel’s longtime rival Friedrich Merz, popular with the CDU’s more conservative factions, and the centrist state premier of North Rhine-Westphalia Armin Laschet.Monday’s top-level talks in Berlin came a day after the CDU suffered its second-worst result ever in a regional election, coming third in Hamburg with just 11.5 percent of the vote.The party is also engulfed in an internal debate as to how it should position itself against the extremes of right and left that have reshaped Germany’s political landscape.Far-right crisisAfter barely a year as head of the party, AKK announced her resignation on February 10 after regional lawmakers in the eastern state of Thuringia voted with the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), defying an edict from Berlin not to ally with the extremes.It was another sign that the defense minister had failed to stamp her authority on the CDU and become a credible candidate to succeed Merkel, who according to polls is still Germany’s most popular politician.But AKK’s downfall also laid bare the challenge for her potential successor: how to make their mark while Merkel remains chancellor.”The CDU is a party in the stranglehold of a lame-duck leader,” the Bild newspaper wrote.The next chancellor candidate “must first of all pull the CDU back from the abyss, otherwise they can forget about winning the next election,” it added.In the starting blocks are two politicians who promise to break with Merkel’s centrist course and lead the CDU rightwards, in a bid to win back voters from AfD.While the pro-business Merz recently described her fourth government as “abysmal,” young Health Minister Jens Spahn is a rising party star.Facing them are two centrist candidates: Merkel loyalist Laschet who wants Germany to take a leading role in closer EU integration and Norbert Roettgen, a former environment minister dismissed by Merkel in 2012.’Self-destruction’
The choice of leader will set the tone for the future of the party as polls highlight the urgent need for action, with only 27 percent saying they would back the CDU, ahead of 23 percent for the Greens and 14 percent for the far right.Beyond the high-profile personalities, the conservatives also need to clarify what they stand for in an increasingly splintered political landscape that hinders stable majorities, be it in Berlin or the 16 state parliaments.Top of the list is whether the CDU will stick to its rigid policy of refusing to cooperate with either the far right or the far left, an increasingly difficult position to maintain.Thuringia is a textbook case, as last year’s regional elections produced no clear governing majority following a surge by the AfD.CDU state lawmakers voted with the far right, breaching a historic political taboo, to install a liberal state premier.But after a nationwide outcry, the regional CDU retreated — only to be publicly rebuked by Berlin chiefs for its plan to “tolerate” a minority government led by radical-left successors of the one-party state in communist East Germany.Der Spiegel magazine labeled the CDU’s zig-zagging as “self-destruction” by “a party without direction or a strategic center.”

US: Free Speech no Excuse for Crimes of WikiLeaks’ Assange

The U.S. government began outlining its extradition case against Julian Assange in a London court on Monday, arguing that the WikiLeaks founder is not a free-speech champion but an “ordinary” criminal who put many lives at risk with his secret-spilling.
U.S. authorities want to try Assange on espionage charges that carry a maximum sentence of 175 years in prison over the 2010 publication of hundreds of thousands of secret military documents and diplomatic cables. Assange argues he was acting as a journalist entitled to First Amendment protection.
Lawyer James Lewis, representing the U.S. government, called WikiLeaks’ 2010 document deluge “one of the largest compromises of classified information in the history of the United States.”
“Reporting or journalism is not an excuse for criminal activities or a license to break ordinary criminal laws,” he said.
Dozens of Assange supporters protested outside the high-security courthouse,chanting and setting off a horn as District Judge Vanessa Baraitser began hearing the case. Just before the lunch break, Assange complained that he was having difficulty concentrating and called the noise from outside “not helpful.”
Assange, 48, watched proceedings from the dock in the courtroom at Woolwich Crown Court — brought there from Belmarsh Prison next door, where he has been imprisoned for 10 months. He spoke to confirm his name and date ofbirth. He nodded towards reporters before taking his seat.
The extradition hearing follows years of subterfuge, diplomatic dispute and legal drama that have led the Australian computer expert from fame as an international secret-spiller through self-imposed exile inside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London to incarceration in a maximum-security British prison.
Assange has been indicted in the U.S. on 18 charges over the publication of classified documents. Prosecutors say he conspired with U.S. army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to crack a password and hack into a Pentagon computer and release secret diplomatic cables and military files on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Assange says the leaked documents exposed U.S. military wrongdoing. Among the files published by WikiLeaks was video of a 2007 Apache helicopter attack by American forces in Baghdad that killed 11 people, including two Reuters journalists.
But Lewis said Assange was guilty of “straightforward” criminal activity in trying to hack the computer. And he said WikiLeaks’ activities created a “grave and imminent risk” to U.S. intelligence sources in war zones, who were named in the documents.
 “What Mr. Assange seeks to defend by free speech is not the publication of the classified materials, but he seeks to defend the publication of sources — the names of people who put themselves at risk to assist the U.S. and its allies,“ the lawyer said.
Lewis said some informants who had been assisting the Americans had to be relocated after the leak, and others “subsequently disappeared.”
He said it wasn’t the role of the British court to determine whether Assange was guilty.
“This is an extradition hearing, not a trial,” he said. “The guilt or innocence of Mr. Assange will be determined at trial in the United States, not in this court.”
Journalism organizations and civil liberties groups including Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders say the charges against Assange set a chilling precedent for freedom of the press.
Among the supporters outside court was fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, who wore a headband with the word “angel” on it and said she was “the angel of democracy.”
 “It is not a crime to publish American war crimes,” she said. “It’s in the public interest, it is democracy, that he is allowed to do this.”
Assange’s legal saga began in 2010, when he was arrested in London at the request of Sweden, which wanted to question him about allegations of rape and sexual assault made by two women. He refused to go to Stockholm, saying he feared extradition or illegal rendition to the United States or the U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
In 2012, Assange sought refuge inside the Ecuadorian Embassy, where he was beyond the reach of U.K. and Swedish authorities.
For seven years Assange led an isolated and increasingly surreal existence in the tiny embassy, which occupies an apartment in an upscale block near the ritzy Harrod’s department store. The relationship between Assange and his hosts eventually soured, and he was evicted in April 2019. British police immediately arrested him for jumping bail in 2012.
Sweden dropped the sex crimes investigations in November because so much time had elapsed, but Assange remains in London’s Belmarsh Prison as he awaits a decision on the U.S. extradition request.
For his supporters around the world, Assange remains a hero. But many others are critical of the way WikiLeaks has published classified documents without redacting details that could endanger individuals. WikiLeaks has also been accused of serving as a conduit for Russian misinformation, and Assange has alienated some supporters by dallying with populist politicians including Brexit-promoter Nigel Farage.
An end to the saga could still be years away. After a week of opening arguments, the extradition case is due to break until May, when the two sides will lay out their evidence. The judge isn’t expected to rule until several months after that, with the losing side likely to appeal.
If the courts approve extradition, the British government will have the final say.
The case comes at delicate time for trans-Atlantic relations. The U.K. has left the European Union and is keen to strike a trade deal with the U.S.  

Extradition Hearing for WikiLeaks Founder Opens in London

A hearing on the United States request for the extradition of the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange opened in London Monday.A judge at Woolwich Crown Court is hearing arguments from lawyers representing U.S. that has leveled 17 charges on espionage and one of computer hacking.If found guilty, the 48-year-old detained Australian would face a maximum sentence of 175 years behind bars.The charges are related to WikiLeaks release of classified materials from State Department and the Pentagon detailing the U.S. military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as cables sent to State Department officials from U.S. embassies in various countries, and information provided from government agents and individuals who cooperated with the United States.Assange’s supporters, among which are many celebrities from the realm of music to fashion, have argued that his prosecution has been political and personal from the start, and have demanded his release.Journalism organizations have rallied in support of Assange, calling the charges against him an assault on freedom of the press.Assange spent seven years in self-imposed exile in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London and after his eviction from there, British authorities sent him to a maximum-security prison in 2019.Assange was first arrested in 2010 in London at the request of Sweden, which wanted to question him about allegations of rape and sexual assault.

Xi Says China Facing ‘Big Test’ With Virus, Global Impact Spreads

China’s leader said Sunday the new coronavirus epidemic is the communist country’s largest-ever public health emergency, but other nations were also increasingly under pressure from the deadly outbreak’s relentless global march.Italy and Iran began introducing the sort of containment measures previously seen only in China, which has put tens of millions of people under lockdown in Hubei province, the outbreak’s epicenter.Italy reported a third death while cases spiked and the country’s Venice carnival closed early.Tourists are wearing protective masks against coronavirus in Venice, Italy, Feb. 23, 2020. (S. Castelfranco/VOA)Iran’s confirmed death toll rose to eight, prompting travel bans from neighboring countries.The virus has so far killed more than 2,400 people, with about 80,000 infected globally, though China remains by far the worst hit.President Xi Jinping said the epidemic was the “largest public health emergency” since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949.”This is a crisis for us and it is a big test,” he said during remarks carried by state television.In a rare admission, at a meeting to coordinate the fight against the virus, Xi added that China must learn from “obvious shortcomings exposed” during its response.The World Health Organization (WHO) has praised Beijing for its handling of the epidemic, but China has been criticized at home for silencing early warnings from a whistleblower doctor who later died from the virus.South Korea said it was raising its alert to the highest level, after the number of infections nearly tripled over the weekend to 602.  Workers wearing protective gear spray disinfectant at a market in the southeastern city of Daegu, South Korea, as a preventive measure after the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak.The country now has the most infections outside of China, apart from the Diamond Princess cruise ship docked in Japan.South Korea reported three deaths on Sunday, taking the countrywide fatality toll to five. The Yonhap news agency later reported a sixth death.Around half of South Korea’s cases have been linked to the Shincheonji Church of Jesus sect in the southern city of Daegu, where thousands of members have been quarantined or asked to stay at home.Police checkpointsItaly’s cases spiked to 152 on Sunday, including three deaths.Virus panic crept onto catwalks, leading to the cancellation of some runway shows at Milan Fashion Week. Others were held behind closed doors and livestreamed.Most cases are confined to the northern town of Codogno, about 70 kilometers (43 miles) southeast of Milan.  More than 50,000 people in about a dozen northern Italian towns have been told to stay home, and police set up checkpoints to enforce a blockade.Austrian railways said traffic on a major route to Italy through the Brenner Pass would be suspended, after a train was stopped because of two suspected cases of the virus.Neighboring Slovenia asked vacationers returning from ski resorts in northern Italy to be particularly vigilant for symptoms.Italy became the first European country to report one of its nationals died from the virus on Friday.Two more fatalities came over the weekend but Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte urged people “not to give in to panic”, and asked them to follow the advice of health authorities.”The rapid increase in reported cases in Italy over the past two days is of concern,” World Health Organization spokesperson Tarik Jasarevic said.Not all reported cases seem to have clear epidemiological links, such as travel history to China or contact with a confirmed case, Jasarevic added.”At this stage, we need to focus on limiting further human to human transmission.”Iran ordered the closure of schools, universities and cultural centers across 14 provinces following eight deaths — the most outside East Asia.The outbreak in the Islamic Republic surfaced Wednesday and quickly grew to 43 confirmed infections, a sudden rise that prompted regional travel restrictions.Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pachinian said his country will close its border with Iran and suspend flights.Like the Italian leader, he, too, said there is no reason to panic.But Paul Hunter, professor of medicine at Britain’s University of East Anglia, said the situation in Iran has “major implications” for the Middle East.”It is unlikely that Iran will have the resources and facilities to adequately identify cases and adequately manage them if case numbers are large,” Hunter said.Pakistan and Turkey announced the closure of land crossings with Iran while Afghanistan said it was suspending travel to the country.Japan criticizedThe outbreak in China remains concentrated in the city of Wuhan — locked down one month ago — where the virus is believed to have emanated from a live animal market in December.China’s infection rate has slowed, but flip-flopping over counting methods has sown confusion over its data.There also was growing concern over the difficulty of detecting the virus.Japan on Sunday confirmed a woman who tested negative and disembarked from the virus-stricken Diamond Princess cruise ship later tested positive.Similarly in Israel, authorities confirmed that a second Israeli citizen who returned from the ship had tested positive. They were among 11 Israelis allowed off the ship and flown home after initially testing negative.Japan has been criticized over its handling of cases aboard the vessel quarantined off Yokohama.A third passenger died Sunday, Japan’s health ministry said, without specifying if it was as a result of the virus.Four Britons who returned from the Diamond Princess on Saturday also tested positive for the COVID-19 illness, the NHS health service said.

Pope Cautions against ‘Unfair’ Middle East Peace Plans

Pope Francis has cautioned against “unfair” solutions aimed at ending the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.In a speech Sunday during a visit to the Italian southern port city of Bari to reflect on peace in countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea, Francis lamented the many areas of war and conflict, including in the Middle East and Northern Africa.Francis spoke of “the still unresolved conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, with the danger of not fair solutions, and, thus, presaging new crises.”The pope didn’t cite any specific proposals.A new U.S. peace plan would let Israel annex all of its settlements along with the strategic Jordan Valley. It would give the Palestinians limited autonomy in several chunks of territory with a capital on the outskirts of Jerusalem, but only if they meet stringent conditions.In the same speech, Francis took a swipe at populist politics. “It scares me when I hear some speeches by some leaders of the new forms of popularism,” he said. He also lamented that waves of refugees fleeing conflicts, climate change consequences and other adversity are “depicted as an invasion.”Among the prelates gathered for his speech in Bari’s Pontifical Basilica of St. Nicholas were churchmen from the Balkans, Jerusalem and Algeria. 

Venice Cancels Carnival Events Due to Coronavirus

More than 130 people have contracted the coronavirus in Italy, the majority in the north of the country. Italy, which has confirmed at least two coronavirus deaths, has the highest number of cases in Europe. With an emergency decree, the Italian government has adopted special powers to deal with the situation. Strict measures have been adopted in an effort to curb the spread of the virus.Military police wearing surgical masks are guarding the nearly a dozen northern Italian towns that are on lockdown following an outbreak of coronavirus. The towns have a combined population of about 50,000. The police were deployed to ensure no one enters or leaves the towns that have been sealed and placed under quarantine.A cyclist talks to police officers controlling movements to and from the cordoned area in Casalpusterlengo, Northern Italy, Feb. 23, 2020.Most of Italy’s coronavirus cases are in the wealthy industrial north of the country, in the regions of Lombardy and Veneto. To deal with this emergency, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte explained the government’s decisions.He said an emergency decree was approved immediately that gives special powers to the government in order to be able to safeguard in the best possible way the health of Italians.Very strict measures were adopted in the two most affected regions in Italy on Sunday including closure of schools, universities, cinemas and museums for at least one week. No public gatherings or church services will be permitted to take place and four Serie A soccer games were postponed.Tourists are wearing protective masks against coronavirus in Venice, Italy, Feb. 23, 2020. (S. Castelfranco/VOA)In Venice, checks were being carried out at the airport on all arriving passengers and leaflets handed out with an emergency number for the health ministry and a list of precautions to take. Authorities canceled all carnival events from Sunday.The governor of the Veneto  region Luca Zaia confirmed two elderly people had contracted the virus in Venice and were hospitalized.In Milan, Giorgio Armani was holding his womenswear fashion show behind closed doors as a precaution. Italian designer Laura Biagiotti canceled her show.Italian health officials are struggling to figure out how the outbreak began. Very early on the Italian government took measures against the coronavirus including the suspension of all incoming and outgoing flights from China.  

More Russian Weapons for Serbia Despite US Sanction Threats

Serbia has received a sophisticated anti-aircraft system from Russia, despite possible U.S. sanctions against the Balkan state, which is formally seeking European Union membership.Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic told the pro-government TV Prva on Sunday that the Pantsir S1 air-defense system was purchased after suggestions from Russian President Vladimir Putin.”Buy Pantsir, it showed its best efficiency in Syria,” Vucic quoted Putin as saying during one of their recent, frequent meetings.”This anti-aircraft system is very efficient for targeting drones which are becoming crucial in modern warfare,” Vucic said.Despite seeking to join the EU, Serbia under Vucic’s populist leadership has strengthened close political and military ties with its Slavic ally Russia.Serbia has pledged to stay out of NATO and refused to join Western sanctions against Russia for its policies in Ukraine.Russia’s arming of Serbia is watched with unease in the West amid growing tensions in the Balkans which went through a devastating civil war in the 1990s. NATO intervened in Serbia to stop a bloody Serb crackdown against Kosovo Albanian separatists in 1999.U.S. officials have openly spoken about introducing sanctions against Serbia in case Moscow sells more arms to the country, especially with weapons that could jeopardize the security of neighboring NATO-member states.Vucic said he hoped there would be no sanctions because he has spoken openly about the Pantsir purchase. He said he believed the sanctions threat was focused on possible purchase of the S-400 anti-aircraft systems that have a much larger range and are more offensive weapons.The delivery on Saturday of two of the purchased six Russian missile systems comes just days after Russia’s defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, visited Belgrade where he declared that the military cooperation between the two states has reached a “fundamentally” new level.Pantsir is a rapid-fire missile system intended for defense against cruise missiles, drones and low flying aircraft with a range of about 20 kilometers (12 miles). 

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