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4 Feb, 2022 12:52

US delivers choppers to Croatia, as Russia and China arm Serbia

Washington’s gift, announced two years ago, was followed by a multimillion-dollar purchase of two additional aircraft
US delivers choppers to Croatia, as Russia and China arm Serbia

The US delivered two Sikorski UH-60M Black Hawk helicopters to Zagreb’s Franjo Tudman Airport. The aircraft were donated to Croatia as part of a military assistance program and arrived amid what some have described as an escalating arms race between Serbia and its neighbors.

Announcing the delivery on Thursday, US Chargé d’Affaires Mark Fleming said the Balkan country “has earned a reputation as a committed and capable NATO Ally,” and that the shipment “will further boost the capacities of the Croatian Armed Forces.”

The US Embassy in Zagreb estimated the value of the hardware at around $54.8 million, saying it was part of $685 million worth of military assistance received by Croatia from Washington. Defense cooperation is the cornerstone of relations between the two nations, the diplomatic mission said in a statement on Thursday’s delivery.

The donation of the Sikorsky helicopters was announced in 2019 and was followed by Zagreb’s purchase of two additional rotorcraft at an estimated cost of $115 million. Senior Croatian defense officials visited the production facilities of the Lockheed Martin-owned company last year during an official visit to the US. Croatian pilots and ground crew received training in Minnesota to learn how to operate the US-made helicopters.

Croatia has been working for decades to replace the stockpiles of Soviet-made weapons it kept after splitting from Yugoslavia, with those made by the US and other NATO members. Last year, it purchased 12 Rafale fighter jets from France, and in January it announced an agreement to buy 89 Bradley Fighting Vehicles from the US. Croatia joined NATO in 2009.

Some media contrasted Zagreb’s alignment with Washington and Brussels to the position of Serbia, its opponent during the 1990s Croatian War of Independence. Belgrade, which says it wants to become a member of the EU, relies on its traditional partner, Russia, and more recently on China, for weapons procurement.

Last month, Serbia welcomed a shipment of Russian-made Kornet anti-tank missiles, which the president called an “important defensive tool to deter anyone from potential aggression against our country.”

Last year, the country purchased advanced Pantsir S1M air defense systems from Russia, on top of the six older versions it acquired in 2019. It also received a donation of 30 T-72MS tanks and 30 BRDM-2MS armored reconnaissance vehicles.

In 2020, Serbia purchased CH-92A armed drones from China, spending an estimated $19.3 million.

Some observers say the weapons procurements amount to a mini arms race in the Balkans, taking place amid growing tensions between Russia and NATO.

Last month, Croatia became tangled up in the slow-burning conflict after the president promised not to involve his nation’s troops in any potential Russia-NATO conflict over Ukraine. His statements were contradicted by the prime minister, which led to a public feud between senior officials over what benefits Croatia’s national interests most.