Serbia’s NATO Neighbors Block Lavrov’s Flight; US Says Serbia Should Align its Policies With Europe

( – Serbia should focus on its aspirations to join the European Union and “aligning its foreign and security policies with the rest of Europe,” the U.S. State Department said on Monday, after Serbia’s neighbors refused to allow Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to cross their airspace en route to Belgrade.

Lavrov called the decisions by Bulgaria, Montenegro, and North Macedonia unprecedented and “unthinkable,” and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic pledged that despite the incident, “Serbia will preserve independence and autonomy in political decision-making.”

In late February the E.U. banned Russian aircraft from flying over member-states in response to the invasion of Ukraine. Though not yet members of the E.U., Montenegro and North Macedonia have largely aligned themselves to E.U. positions on the war. (Bulgaria has been a member of the E.U. since 2007.)

Bulgaria, Montenegro and North Macedonia are all members of NATO – the latter two are the alliance’s newest members – which has taken a unified stance of support for Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression.

Serbia, like fellow former Yugoslavia republics Montenegro and North Macedonia, is a candidate to join the E.U., but also has longstanding close links to Russia and refused to support sanctions against Moscow over the invasion. It is also heavily reliant on Russian natural gas.


North Macedonian media quoted Foreign Minister Bujar Osmani as saying banning Lavrov’s plane was not an action against Russia but against its policies and aggression in Ukraine.

“I think we should be unequivocal in our position and in the messages we send to the Russian Federation, that it is inadmissible in the 21st century to attack neighboring countries and to make aggression against independent states,” said Osmani, who met with Secretary of State Antony Blinken in D.C. last week.

Bulgaria’s foreign ministry confirmed the government had refused a permit for Lavrov’s plane to cross its airspace, and said Russia had been informed of this in writing on June 1.

The Bulgarian ministry noted that, with effect from February 25 this year, Lavrov was sanctioned by the E.U.

The E.U. designation says Lavrov actively supported “actions undermining the territorial integrity, sovereignty, and independence of Ukraine, as well as stability and security in Ukraine.”

Lavrov had been scheduled to visit Serbia on Monday and Tuesday for meetings with Vucic, Serbia’s foreign minister, head of the national assembly, and senior Serbian Orthodox clergy.

The decision by Serbia’s three NATO neighbors to refuse overflight permission drew a strong response from Russia’s veteran foreign minister.

“Let’s not beat around the bush,” he told reporters. “This is another clear and instructive demonstration of how far NATO and the European Union can go in using the most base methods of influencing those who are guided by national interests and are not ready to sacrifice their principles and dignity for the sake of ‘rules’ imposed by the West, instead of international law.”

“If a visit by a Russian foreign minister is being seen in the West as something close to a global threat, then by all accounts things within the West are pretty bad,” Lavrov said.

Commenting on the countries’ refusal to permit Lavrov’s flight, State Department spokesman Ned Price said they were sovereign decisions for those countries to take.

“It reflects Europe’s commitment to hold Russia accountable for its unprovoked, for its unjustified aggression in Ukraine,” he said. “We urge Serbia to focus on its stated goal of E.U. membership, including aligning its foreign and security policies with the rest of Europe.”

Price said the U.S. has “consistently urged Serbia to take steps that advance its European path, including diversifying its energy sources, to reduce energy dependence on the Russian Federation, and aligning its foreign and security policies with the E.U.”

Nuclear missile threat

Bulgaria’s BTA national news agency quoted senior Russian lawmaker Konstantin Kosachev as saying in a Telegram post that the refusal of a permit was not directed at Lavrov’s aircraft but “against Russia as a state and against Serbia as a state.”

“By directly interfering in the bilateral affairs of two non-member sovereign European countries, Russia and Serbia, NATO is trying to seize and subjugate the rest of Europe,” said Kosachev, who is deputy speaker of the Federation Council, Russia’s upper house of parliament.

Meanwhile the snub to Lavrov prompted Dmitry Rogozin, head of Russia’s Roscosmos space agency and a close ally of President Vladimir Putin, to post a tweet essentially threatening the three European countries with a nuclear strike.

“Do you know what’s so good about the Sarmat?” he asked in the Russian-language post, referring to Putin’s newest intercontinental ballistic missile. “It won’t ask for a flying permit from Bulgarian cowards, vindictive Romanians and Montenegrins, who betrayed our common history. The same goes for the Swedes.”

(Why he referenced Romania rather than Macedonia is unclear. Sweden recently applied together with Finland to join NATO.)

Asked how the U.S. and NATO would protect the three countries against “threats from Russia,” Price noted that Bulgaria, Montenegro and North Macedonia were NATO allies “and the commitment to article five on the part of all three is ironclad.”

Under article five of the North Atlantic Treaty, an attack on one ally is considered to be an attack on all.


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