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Serbia spy video is a provocation, Russian foreign ministry says

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MOSCOW/BELGRADE (Reuters) – A video purportedly showing a Russian intelligence officer handing over money to a Serbian man in Belgrade should be regarded as a provocation, the Russian Foreign Ministry said on Thursday.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic on Wednesday ordered an investigation into the incident, which could strain normally warm relations between his country and Russia.

The YouTube video apparently showed the man identified as a former assistant military attache at Russia’s embassy in Belgrade meeting a Serbian agent in a sting operation.

Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for Russia’s Foreign Ministry, told a news briefing in Moscow that the footage should be regarded as “a provocation” designed to create “a certain impression.”

She said Moscow had often noticed similar provocations in the run-up to high-level meetings between Russian and foreign officials.

Vucic is scheduled to travel to Moscow on Dec. 4 to meet his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, their third meeting this year.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he was confident nothing could harm relations between Russia and Serbia.

The two Slavic and Orthodox Christian countries have strong political, military, cultural and economic ties. Moscow backs Belgrade in refusing to recognise the independence of Kosovo, a former Serbian province.

“Relations with Serbia are a partnership, of a brotherly character. Nothing can influence that,” Peskov told reporters.

Serbia depends on Russian oil and gas, and it wants to join the TurkStream gas pipeline that would bypass Ukraine and carry Russian gas to European markets.

After ordering an investigation into the video, Vucic summoned the National Security Council, which includes top police and security officials, for later on Thursday. He is expected to address the public after the meeting.

Late on Wednesday, Relja Zeljski, chief analyst at Serbia’s Security and Information Agency, said the video was authentic and that the Russian was Lt. Col. Georgiy Kleban, who served at the Russian embassy in Belgrade until August.

“Such scenes are frequent in intelligence circles,” Zeljski told state-run RTS TV. “Our (state security) services know the identity of the other person in the video and what was the subject of the trade.”

(Reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic, Andrey Ostroukh, Alexander Marrow, Maria Kiselyova; Editing by Alison Williams and Giles Elgood)

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