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Bulgaria’s Black Sea Stand-Off Shows the Tide is Turning Against Russia in Ukraine

Bulgaria’s new pro-European Government is taking a tougher line against Moscow as Putin steps up pro-Kremlin propaganda in the region

Ukraine’s Minister of Defense, Oleksii Reznikov, and Bulgarian Minister of Defense, Todor Tagarev, meet in Odesa, Ukraine over rising tensions in the Black Sea. Photo: Svet Jacqueline/ZUMA Press Wire

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From joining Western sanctions against the Russian Federation to its clandestine support and generous military aid package to Ukraine, Bulgaria seems to be on a rollercoaster ride regarding the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine. 

Although a NATO and EU member, and the sixth largest arms producer in Europe, Bulgaria also had the lowest GDP per capita in the EU in 2022, is economically dependent on Russian gas, and has a deeply divided society, with pro-Russian sentiments still prevailing after 30 years of democracy. Yet with the recent victory for the pro-European Government, Bulgaria’s continually evolving role has significant implications for the outcome of the war.

While Bulgaria joined Western sanctions against Russia at the onset of the full-scale invasion in 2022, the country initially failed to publicly assist Ukraine in its war effort. Bulgarian President Ruden Radev refused to supply artillery shells to Ukraine in March 2023. The interim Governments, appointed by Radev, also rejected direct arms supplies, citing the national security risks concerns. While in Bulgaria in July 2023, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy disagreed with Radev over military assistance for Ukraine and criticized Radev’s pro-Russian position. 

However, according to an investigation by German WELT, unbeknownst to the international community, intermediary companies in Bulgaria and abroad established supply routes through Romania, Hungary, and Poland and delivered “about a third of the ammunition needed by the Ukrainian army in the early phase of the war”. In the most astonishing turn of events, Bulgaria also supplied about 40% of Ukraine’s diesel needs at the time—coincidentally, processed from Russian crude oil at a Black Sea refinery.

The Kremlin’s revenge was brutal. In a traditional hybrid war move, Russia halted the supply of spare parts for Bulgarian plants producing and repairing Soviet-made military equipment, launched a series of cyberattacks on the country’s power supply system and post offices, attempted to infiltrate the Government, and cut off the gas supply. 

Bulgaria bounced back. Around 70 Russian embassy employees were expelled from the country for alleged spying. The first EU country the Russian gas giant Gazprom cut off its supply, Bulgaria switched to liquified natural gas from the US. And the country’s arms industry will have to adapt to the parts ban by seeking alternative sources of know-how and technology, said the new Bulgarian Minister of Defense Todor Tagarev.

The Kremlin is also pushing its disinformation in Bulgaria, as well as in other countries in the region, including Serbia, Montenegro, and areas populated by ethnic Serbians in Bosnia and Herzegovina. “Bulgaria and Serbia continue to act as the primary coordination hubs and launchpads for the Kremlin’s influence operations across the region. Bulgarian politicians and reporters normalize pro-Kremlin disinformation domestically and in the Euro-Atlantic space”, the Center for the Study of Democracy reported.

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Answering Byline Times’ question regarding countering Russian propaganda in Bulgaria at a press conference in Odesa, Ukraine, Tagarev said, “It’s a difficult question. I wouldn’t say that we have the full concept in place, but with the support of several of our allies, we are building Stratcom capabilities. We are also working to mitigate the effects of Russian propaganda, unfortunately, still pretty strong in our country. As a defence minister, I’m taking measures in the area that’s in my responsibility and the capacity that is available to me, understanding at the same time that the effective countering of disinformation campaigns and propaganda requires all of the Government and even the whole-of-society approach, and we are working towards it”.

Bound by History

Tagarev’s third meeting with the Ukrainian Minister of Defense Oleksiy Reznikov signals a new stage in the Bulgarian-Ukrainian relationship. The meeting took place in Odesa, the southwestern part of Ukraine, in a region where most of Ukraine’s ethnic Bulgarians reside. Bulgarians are the fifth most significant minority in Ukraine, and Tagarev referred to common history, speaking of Bulgaria’s “strong and resolute commitment” to Ukraine, built on the foundation of shared values and historical ties dating back centuries, of “unbreakable” cultural bonds that make a part of Bulgarian identity. “We are not just allies—we are comrades bound by shared history”, said the minister.

“We find ourselves in a profoundly altered security environment as the foundations of European security architecture we once knew were shattered on 24 February last year”, said Tagarev. “We stand shoulder to shoulder with Ukraine, actively backing its legitimate defence against the aggression and firmly supporting the restoration of the territorial integrity”.

He spoke of unwavering support for Ukraine’s defence efforts through NATO, the EU, and UN. He emphasised the recent decisions to provide military aid and join the G7 countries in providing long-term security support to Ukraine. Bulgaria also supports Ukraine’s membership in the EU and fully endorses the comprehensive assistance package for Ukraine designed to assist in post-war reconstruction.

Such a turn was possible due to the recent change in the Government leadership, which marked a significant shift for Bulgaria. The new pro-EU Government approved a military aid package for Ukraine, including artillery, air-defence weapons, and long-range ammunition, excluding tanks and aircraft. Bulgaria also joined the EU project “One Million Projectiles for Ukraine”. Although Bulgaria chose not to send troops or medics to Ukraine, it committed to training Ukrainian paramedics at one of its largest hospitals’ simulation training centres. 

At the meeting, Reznikov and Tagarev committed to strengthening air defense against the Russian missile attacks on Ukraine, the development of the capabilities of the Armed Forces of Ukraine and the potential supply of additional weapons and ammunition, training for Ukrainian tank crews and officers, and further collaboration with the European community. The decision by the Bulgarian Government to join the European Union program to supply 155 mm artillery shells was granted a special mention.

The Black Sea Threat

The ministers also discussed the current security situation at the front in general and in the Azov and Black Sea regions and the common interest and concerns of Ukraine, Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey in the Black Sea region. 

After withdrawing from a UN grain deal in July 2023 unilaterally, Russia warned that the vessels en route to and from Ukrainian Black Sea ports could be considered potential military targets. In response, Ukraine launched a maritime drone strike on a Russian energy tanker and announced the waters surrounding Russia’s Black Sea ports a “war risk area”, starting on 23 August 2023. With Russia’s expansion of control and inspection measures, “the possibility of a confrontation between NATO and the Russian Federation cannot be ruled out,” said Tagarev in an interview on 18 August 2023.

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“Bulgaria strongly condemns Russia’s unilateral termination of the Black Sea grain initiative, missile attacks, and establishment of new risk zones”, said Tagarev at the meeting on Odesa. “The escalation of tensions caused by Russia’s provocative actions blocking Ukrainian grain exports is a great concern. These actions heighten the risk of incidents and impede free navigation. 

“Our coordination with the Black Sea allies Romania and Turkey aims to bolster vigilance and situational awareness. Maritime patrol aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles play a pivotal role. Our naval forces have intensified efforts to detect floating sea mines and ensure safe passage for commercial ships in the Black Sea”.

Reznikov expressed hope that Russia would not dare to attack commercial ships in the territorial waters of three NATO countries. A commercial ship’s passage from the Odesa port through the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits goes along the territorial waters of Ukraine along the coast and the territorial waters of Romania, Bulgaria, and Turkey. 

“Today, all four countries are working on the possibilities of shipping the agricultural and other products, including the big challenge: the de-mining of the Black Sea”, said Reznikov.  

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