Win-Win Game: Western Balkans Should Up Arms Flows to Ukraine

Omar Memišević

The impact of Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine echoed in the Western Balkans. This was seen in the rise of anti-Western disinformation campaigns, Russian support for certain regional political actors working to undermine the democratic process in their respective countries, and in challenges to regional security.

While the West rallied behind the Ukrainian cause, introducing comprehensive economic and political sanctions against Moscow and providing much-needed financial and military aid, the internal divisions in the Western Balkans came to the surface.

This was seen in the failure of some Western Balkan countries to introduce sanctions against Russia and in protests supporting Russian policies.

Additionally, the Russian war in Ukraine, combined with its hybrid activities in the region, sparked internal political divisions in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro.

The latter, however, together with two other NATO members from the region, North Macedonia and Albania, joined the rest of the Alliance in condemning the invasion. Kosovo’s position, however, was challenging. Its bilateral relations hindered more substantial support for Ukraine on the international scene but it still became a part of other support mechanisms.

„Ukraine is short of artillery and other hardware – and the Balkan countries can help fill important gaps.“


Potential to supply arms at low prices

On the other hand, the military-industrial complex of the region, noted for its ability to produce both NATO and Soviet-standard munitions, quickly came into focus for its potential to supply Ukraine (or the West) at a relatively low price.

The former Communist regimes in the region aimed to create self-sufficient militaries and invested substantial resources in companies producing almost anything needed to equip them.

In practice, this means that each of them has the know-how and the infrastructure for the production and maintenance of artillery shells, small arms ammunition, vehicles, or any other hardware Ukraine needs.

Bosnia and Herzegovina is the regional leader in production capabilities, followed closely by Serbia, and Albania. However, almost all countries of the region, except the three NATO member states (Montenegro, Albania, and North Macedonia), have either prohibited arms exports to war zones or simply don’t have the capacity for the production of military hardware in the numbers that Ukraine needs.

This means that the investments from the West, or the mechanisms suggested by President Zelenskyy in February are paramount, for Western Balkan arms companies them to meet the needs of the Ukrainian army.

For instance, the 155 mm artillery shells Ukraine needs are produced by several companies in the region, especially by Bosnian companies such as BNT, PRETIS, and Binas.

BNT, a company stationed in Novi Travnik, has a wide array of artillery pieces production with a total yearly output of 500.000 units.

But as of 2015, Bosnia has prohibited the exports of arms to war zones, while Serbia requires buyers to have end-user certificates for easier tracking of sales.

These certificates, however, are not a dealbreaker. Weapons made by Zastava, a Serbian company specializing in small arms and rifle production, EDePro, Krušik, and others have been seen in use by the Ukrainian forces.

In February 2023, pictures posted on X by the Ukrainian Weapons Tracker showed a shipment of Krusik-made 122mm Grad surface-to-surface rockets.

It was later reported that Krusik sold the rockets to SOFAG, a private company owned by a daughter of U.S-sanctioned Slobodan Tesic, which sold it to Canadian JNJ Company. The rockets were then sold to Turkish Arca Savunma Sanayi Ticaret Company, which changed the end-user certificate and transferred them to Slovak MSM Nováky Company, which then moved the missiles to the Canadian Global Ordnance Trading Company, which has a supply agreement with the Ukrainians.

Besides Bosnia and Serbia, as the region’s top producers, Albania, Montenegro, and North Macedonia are also quite active, either through multilateral mechanisms or bilaterally. All three opted to donate their Cold War Soviet-standard equipment, with North Macedonia being the frontrunner.

North Macedonia donated around 30 pieces of T-72 Soviet-era main battle tanks, including unknown quantities of 125 mm tank rounds, as well as 12 Mi-24 Soviet-era attack helicopters and four SU-25S ground attack jets with spare parts and unknown quantities of 30 mm ammunition for the jets’ guns, all of which were bought from Ukraine during the 2001 insurgency in Macedonia.

Montenegro sent almost all its obsolete naval artillery to Ukraine, including some 760 pieces of 57×438 mm shells used by Bofors 57 mm L/70 naval automatic gun, which were fitted on now decommissioned Končar class missile boats, and artillery shells in various calibers in a total amount of 15.000 pieces of 57 mm and 76 mm shells.

Over two years, Albania has sent 22 US-made International M1224 MaxxPro MRAP (Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected) vehicles to Ukraine. These vehicles, fitted with machine guns, have so far been observed in frontline positions, where their thick armor is useful in protecting Ukrainian soldiers. Chinese-made 7.62mm small arms sounds as well as 60mm Type 63 mortar rounds have also been seen in the theatre, as well as in-house-made 82mm mortar rounds.

On the other hand, the Ukraine’s position as a non-recognizer of Kosovo’s independence and Kosovo’s lack of membership in international cooperation fora like NATO or the EU, stopped Kosovo from sending military aid to Ukraine.

However, political and financial support for the Ukrainian cause and humanitarian aid was not lacking from Kosovo. Kosovo has committed 26 instructors as part of the UK-led Operation Interflex, and some 150 Ukrainians were trained in demining in Kosovo.

„On the other hand, the Ukraine’s position as a non-recognizer of Kosovo’s independence and Kosovo’s lack of membership in international cooperation fora like NATO or the EU, stopped Kosovo from sending military aid to Ukraine.“
„In this way, Western Balkans can help Ukraine fight the war while providing long-term jobs and security within the six regional countries, as well as combatting Russia’s malign influence, and resolving bilateral issues. „

Investment needed in region’s production capabilities

The proximity of the Western Balkans to Ukraine and Central Europe makes it an ideal region for the production of much-needed arms for Ukraine because of ease of transport to Ukraine and a low-price workforce.

What is much needed for this potential to materialize is some form of capital investments in the region from NATO or the EU, which would focus on increasing production capabilities in terms of products produced in a day.

These investments would focus on Bosnia and Serbia, as the two largest producers in the region, but could also focus on the reconstruction of arms industry facilities in Kosovo. This can be done through the EU-sponsored Peace Facility Programme, for which the Western Balkan countries are eligible.

In this way, Western Balkans can help Ukraine fight the war while providing long-term jobs and security within the six regional countries, as well as combatting Russia’s malign influence, and resolving bilateral issues. This would also be an opportunity to further friendly relations between Ukraine and the region while facilitating experience exchange and economic cooperation.

Omar Memišević is a Research Fellow at Strategic Analysis, focusing on hybrid threats and foreign malign influence in the Western Balkans.

This article was released in cooperation with Balkan Insight.

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