BELGRADE – Serbia is thinking of allowing a Russian Defense Ministry presence in the Balkan country, something that could further strain its relations with the West.

Serbia’s Defense Ministry said in a statement Tuesday that “legal proceedings” have been launched that would allow an agreement between the two governments on the opening of a Russian Defense Ministry mission in Belgrade.

It said that the agreement would further strengthen military cooperation between the two countries.

The Russian government confirmed the tentative agreement. In a published decree it said the deal would give Russian officials stationed in Belgrade the right to visit Serbian military units which are armed with Russian weapons, following consent by the Serb side.

Media close to Serbia’s populist president, Aleksandar Vucic, praised the possible agreement, saying its goal is to help Belgrade create a strong army.

“Americans will go crazy,” read a headline by the pro-government Informer daily.

Despite formally seeking to join the European Union, Serbia has been strengthening close political and military ties with its Slavic ally Russia.

Last month, Serbia suspended all foreign military exercises on the eve of planned maneuvers together with Russia in Belarus, citing alleged pressure from the EU.

Serbia, which claims military neutrality, has pledged to stay out of NATO and refused to join Western sanctions against Russia for its policies in Ukraine. The Balkan country is the only remaining close Russian ally in the region and its neighbors are mostly NATO member states.

Russia’s arming of