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By Tom Squitieri

WASHINGTON — For the first time in history, a nation on the possible path to join NATO is cavorting with the enemy.

Serbia, a member of the NATO Partnership for Peace program, has concluded a week of military drills with Russia while NATO members were already holding massive military maneuvers nearby in the Balkans.

Serbia’s “Response 2021” exercise came just prior to a major exercise held in neighboring Albania as part of “Defender – Europe 21,” NATO’s exercise set to run from March until June.

“Response 2021” was plied by military supplies from Russia, including the Pantsir missile system, Mi-17 helicopters, and Mi-35M combat helicopters.

Serbia has received fighter jets, combat tanks, and other weapons from Russia, while also increasing ties with China. Russian seeks to open a Russian defense ministry office in Belgrade.

“By further modernization and strengthening of our army and police, we can act preventively to deter any aggressor. We will always act quickly and efficiently against possible terrorist acts,” Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said at the end of the drills.

Just two years ago, Serbia hosted the “Platinum Wolf 2019” (“Platinasti vuk 19”) military exercises. Their troops joined 500 members of the armed forces of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Hungary, Italy, Northern Macedonia, Romania, the United States, Slovenia, and the United Kingdom participating in the exercise.

The Partnership for Peace is a NATO program aimed at creating trust between NATO and other states in Europe and the former Soviet Union. It permits partners to build up an individual relationship with NATO, choosing their own priorities for cooperation.

The partnership was designed to get nations ready for membership as well as to establish links between NATO and those nations that did not want to join the alliance.

Under the Pentagon’s current guiding doctrine, called the National Defense Strategy, there is “a clear road map for the Department of Defense to meet the challenges posed by a re-emergence of long-term strategic competition with China and Russia,” identified as the primary adversaries of the U.S.

“Well, I mean, nobody’s labeled Russia the enemy,” John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesperson, said in a response to a question about the Serb-Russian drills. “We value Serbia as a member of the Partnership for Peace program and we certainly value our contributions to the alliance.”

“Defender-Europe 21” includes 30,000 soldiers from 27 countries. One of its goals is to move military units from stations in the US to a potential battlefield site in Europe. All of the countries in the region, except for Serbia, are taking part in the exercise. The Balkan countries are the main areas where the exercise is taking place, but military centers in Germany and the Baltic states are also being used.