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The Serbian president said he is not opposed to his country selling ammunition to intermediaries who ship it to Ukraine, in a sign that Russia’s staunch Balkan ally is pivoting westwards.

Aleksandar Vučić has traditionally backed Moscow and refused to align with western sanctions on Russia after its full scale invasion of Ukraine. But in a change of tack, the Serbian president said he was aware of US government reports that Serbian ammunition has ended up in Ukraine via intermediaries and that he had no plans to stop that.

“Is it possible that it’s happening? I have no doubts that it might happen,” Vučić told the Financial Times. “What is the alternative for us? Not to produce it? Not to sell it?”

The pipeline funnelling Serb ammunition to the Ukrainian front has been a crucial factor in a noticeable shift as the US, Nato and the EU recently backed Serbia in a recent flare-up of ethnic tensions in Kosovo, according to three western diplomats in the region.

Asked if it was a deliberate step to win the approval of western capitals, Vučić maintained that Belgrade sought to act in a “neutral way”.

“But I’m not a fool. I am aware that some of the arms might end up in Ukraine.”

Vučić acknowledged that he was walking a tightrope between Moscow and western powers but said that he would not help the Russian war effort. “We joined all the UN resolutions,” he said in reference to UN statements condemning Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. “We join re-export bans, such as dual-use [technology] in drones . . . We won’t be a hub for re-exporting something to Russia.”

He added that the times when he spoke to Russian president Vladimir Putin every three months were over, pointing out that he has not been in contact with the Kremlin for a year except for receiving visitors from Moscow. “That never happened before,” he said.

US ambassador to Serbia Christopher Hill told the FT that Ukraine overrode every other issue in Europe, and especially in the Balkans, where Russia has traditionally held sway.

“Ukraine is absolutely critical and we are at a point where all hands need to be on deck,” Hill said. “When people are on board, relations get better.”

Serbia’s strong links with Russia and its potential to disrupt regional security have led western capitals to adopt a more lenient stance towards Belgrade, said defence intelligence firm Janes.

“Given the risk of military escalation in northern Kosovo, western governments do not want to risk having another conflict in Europe,” Janes analysts Stefano Marras and Ines Gonzalez said.

That hands-off approach carries risks, said Engjellushe Morina, a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Kosovo has committed its own errors as part of the process — but western indulgence of Serbia’s essentially anti-western foreign policy orientation helped pave the way to the recent violence,” she wrote.

Vučić said he did not expect a breakthrough in northern Kosovo, where violence erupted last month when local Serbs sought to boycott the appointment of ethnic Albanians as mayors after contested elections.

The EU told Kosovo to repeat the vote and insisted that Serbs should take part in the elections and honour the result. Vučić said that would be impossible until the demands of the Serbian community are met, such as the removal of heavily armed Albanian police units. “Then we can start discussing other things.”

Igor Simic, vice-chair of Serbian List, the main political party of the Serb community in Kosovo, said he had little faith in those demands being met any time soon. “We are not thinking about elections.”

Domestically, Vučić also has to contend with mounting anger after two mass shootings a month ago left dozens of people dead, mostly schoolchildren.

A series of protests in recent weeks displayed growing public discontent with the decade-long rule of Vučić and his SNS party, seen by protesters as increasingly autocratic and corrupt. The president stepped down from the party’s helm and plans to form an umbrella group of his allies, but said the protests did not threaten stability.

The demonstrations, like the Kosovo conflict, are unlikely to go away. The largest protest, the fifth within a month, drew tens of thousands of people from across the country to Belgrade on Saturday.

“The shootings were a ‘wow’ moment,” said Savo Manojlović, leader of the NGO Kreni Promeni (Go Change) rights group, who has helped organise protests. “You have it in every public company, every institution. Corruption displaces meritocracy.”

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