Why Serbs don’t want to die for Russia

Why Serbs don’t want to die for Russia

In early January, Dejan Beric, a Serb responsible for the recruitment of Serbian nationals into the Russian army and Putin’s confidant in the presidential elections, complained about torture and inhumane treatment that “volunteers” face from their regiment’s command. So what does this crisis mean? Is this about a simmering conflict within the Russian security vertical? Is it about some infighting for budget money? Or is it about some issues in Russian-Serbian relations?

We’ll try to address these questions in this article.

Belgrade’s position

Unleashing and waging war on foreign soil are criminal offenses in Serbia under the country’s Criminal Code. Participation in hostilities beyond Serbia’s borders entails imprisonment for a term from six months to five years, and masterminding such involvement of Serbs – from two to 10 years.

From 2014 to 2023, Serbian courts have handed down verdicts in approximately 30 cases against mercenaries, according to local media reports, although only a little more than 10% of the defendants have been sentenced to at least symbolic prison terms.

Early into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, February 25, 2022, Serbian legislators approved the conclusions of the National Security Council regarding the war in Ukraine, noting that the country shall prevent the participation of Serbian citizens in hostilities, and that all “volunteers” involved in the conflict shall be prosecuted.

Nevertheless, the topic of the participation of Serbian “volunteers” in the war against Ukraine on Russia’s side has been relevant since the first days of the Russian-Ukrainian hybrid conflict in 2014, since the seizure of Crimea by Russia, and until now, already in the conditions of a full-scale invasion, and the list of Serbs fighting in the ranks of Russian units is constantly updated.

Serbian “volunteers” once again got into a spotlight early this year, when Dejan “Deki” Beric, who at one time fought against Ukraine in the Donbas before turning into a propaganda mouthpiece, recorded a video message, speaking up about the abuse his compatriots suffer in the Russian army.

His appeal received mixed interpretations but it was clear to everyone that the Russian campaign of recruiting Serbs for the war against Ukraine was falling apart.


Beric’s project to recruit Serbian “volunteers” for the Russian army received wide coverage in August 2022 after a stint on Russia’s major propaganda channel Solovyov Live, where he starred in the “Formula of Sense” show hosted by Russia’s spin doctor and ideologue of the invasion of Ukraine, Dmitry Kulikov. Then “Deki” spoke of the scheme by which men from the Balkans, primarily Serbia, get recruited into the Russian regular army. Another guest in the studio was Davor “Wolf” Savicic, a Bosnia and Herzegovina native, who has been spotted in various Russian military formations, including the notorious Wagner Group.

It was noted that “volunteers” are registered through the Krasnogorsk (Moscow Region) draft office, where a contract is officially signed with the Russian Ministry of Defense and an application is submitted for obtaining Russian citizenship. Rookies get enrolled in the 106th Tula Division of Airborne Assault Forces, 119th Regiment or Brigade, or the Wolf special unit.

In this tandem, Beric was presented as the one who manages the “transfer” of Serbs and nationals from other Balkan states to the Ukraine battlefield, while Savicic was presented shortly – as a military professional. To back claims of Wolf’s combat skills, his participation was mentioned in the battles near Kyiv (Hostomel) and Kharkiv (Izium sector), as well as a number of his awards. By the way, both Beric and Savicic are now Russian citizens, officially.

At the time when Kulikov’s show was recorded, the recruitment campaign was already underway. On August 22, a French project, Intelligence Online, published its own research of Russia’s recruitment campaign in the Balkans, primarily in Serbia. According to their data, at least 500 “volunteers” have been formally registered at the draft office in Moscow region.

On October 6, reports about the inflow of “volunteers” from the Balkans to the Krasnogorsk “recruitment center” was confirmed by a BBC investigation. As journalists were preparing the report, they learned that another group of 30 men from Balkan countries traveled to Moscow region to join the Tula Division. According to the BBC, a total of 1,000 Serbian nationals were set to join the ranks of the Russian armed forces. Journalists claimed Davor Savicic intended to form a full-fledged Serbian brigade within the 106th Division by the fall of 2023. At that moment, however, only about a hundred people had been registered, after which the process was frozen so Savicic never followed up on his vow to set up an actual brigade.

Complaints from mercenaries

In early January, Serbian soldiers from the 119th Regiment of the 106th Division complained in a video appeal to Vladimir Putin about their outrageous conditions of service, claiming that in Russian units they were “received as drug addicts and alcoholics”, not provided with clothes or even basic weapons and ammunition, while their sick and wounded were refused proper medical treatment.

Dejan Beric intervened by recording an appeal to the Russian president, where he said that the Russians treat Serbian soldiers poorly, referring to them as “gypsies” and suggesting they came there to loot, not to fight. According to Beric, after the complaint went public, military police officers raided their positions, firin shots in the air in their dugouts and beat unarmed fighters with rifle butts. The situation became even spicier as in his video appeal, Beric was wearing a T-shirt with the inscription “Putin’s Team”, and he himself was presented in the media as the Russian president’s confidant in the upcoming election.

Both the Serbian soldiers themselves and their “handler” asked to be transferred to another unit – Ramzan Kadyrov’s Akhmat Battalion. The request caused a flurry of sarcastic comments in media because the Serbs are widely known as staunch defenders of the Orthodox Christian faith, and their desire to fight side by side with Muslims against the predominantly Orthodox Ukrainians was clearly inconsistent with their previous statements, actions, and principles.

With no less sarcasm, media in the Balkans reported that the Kremlin rejected the transfer motion and did quite the opposite: the Russian defense ministry actually decided to punish the Serbs who complained to Putin. The dissenters were deployed to the warzones where the most intense fighting was raging, while prosecutors launched an inquiry that could lead to criminal cases … should Serbs survive the war grinder.

Competition for soldiers

There are several conclusions that can be drawn from this whole epic story of humiliated Serbian mercenaries in the Russian army ranks.

One might, of course, focus on the infighting between various groups of influence within the defense and security bloc, which eventually affected Serbian mercenaries. Also, the financial aspects of recruitment schemes and those behind them can be analyzed. Of course, it seems that no one will trust Beric any recruitment funding anymore. But, nevertheless, it seems that the root cause of the spat lay in other factors – first of all, the fact that the very idea of taking part in hostilities in Ukraine is anything but popular in Serbia.

It can be confidently stated that in Serbia, as in the Balkans in general, there is no mass willingness among average citizens to fight in the ranks of the Russian army. A few dozen “volunteers” of whom the media learned is most likely all that recruiters like Beric managed to lure. No separate Serbian brigade, or even a regiment, was ever formed, primarily due to manpower shortage. It is significant that the press service of the unit, to which the Serbs were invited initially (from August 2023), circulated news reports in the Serbian language before gradually switching to Russian.

It is likely that the position pursued by Belgrade, which is to introduce criminal liability for participation in hostilities beyond the country’s borders, did have some influence on the situation. Despite punishments being not too harsh, the prospect of getting a bad criminal record scared off potential contractors. The way out for them, according to the plan of the Russians and their Serbian aides, was for “volunteers” to obtain Russian citizenship. But this scheme resulted in Serbians being registered with the Russian army as regular soldiers, with no privileges whatsoever. So those who eventually made it to Russia found themselves in the vortex of the Russian army’s brutal vertical and long-standing “traditions” that never implied respect for a soldier’s life, and even more so – their conditions of service. The row surrounding Serbian “volunteers” in the Russian army was quite predictable, as was its outcome.

Another, even more significant, factor in the failure of Russia’s recruiting project were the tough competitive conditions in which recruiters have to operate. It is no secret that Serbia, as well as the region as a whole, is going through a demographic crisis. Accordingly, the military mobilization resources are going down along with the population rates. There are fewer men fit for service today, and they are no longer looking for jobs, but jobs are looking for them, including in the army.

Today, the Serbian army actively attracts contracted servicemen, offering them competitive allowance and social security packages. Given the important factor that there are currently no hostilities raging in the Balkans, it is clear whose offer Serbian recruits will take – the one by the Serbian army or the Russian one.

Mysterious Serbian soul

Of course, speaking about any relations between the Slavic peoples, we cannot fail to mention the non-materialistic driver behind the efforts of certain Serbian citizens. But here too, pro-Russian or Russophile propaganda has failed as there is not a single clear explanation in the public field, why Serbs should die to help Russia to capture Ukraine (which is natural, because why should they, really?).

It is imperative to note that even staunch pro-Russian politicians in Serbia never called for military support to Russia. Friendship with Moscow is ok, apparently, but joining their war is not. Here, the position of Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić is decisive. He cannot be labeled as an anti-Russian activist, but his government’s policy is unambiguous – Serbian citizens have nothing to do in the ranks of the Russian army on the Ukrainian battlefield. Other political forces in the region also echo Vučić’s position, first of all Republika Srpska’s Milorad Dodik, who never called for sending “volunteers” to Russia either.

However, given Serbia’s current course towards militarization, one might suggest that Belgrade’s reluctance to take part in a foreign war is not due to pacifist sentiments, but rather due to preparations for turbulent times here in the Balkans. But this is a topic for a separate article.